Title: The Merman and the Barbarian Pirate
Author: Kay Berrisford
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Pages/Word Count: 268 Pages
Rating: 4 Stars
Blurb: Raef, a lonely merman, spends his days watching the dashing Lord Haverford from afar and dreaming of love. When Haverford is robbed by a pirate, Raef vows to reclaim the stolen goods, hoping his victory will buy him the happiness he yearns for with Haverford. But Jon Kemp does not match what Raef knows about pirates, and the simple quest Raef anticipated turns out to be an epic journey. For while Jon might be a nobler man than Raef believed, he’s still a pirate. Love and loyalty are not on Jon’s agenda, and he certainly has no plans to love someone not entirely human …
Review: Kay Berrisford’s The Merman and the Barbarian Pirate might sound like a classic bodice ripper, but it isn’t. It is, by turns, whimsical, dramatic, and even thought-provoking—a blend of fairy tale, high sea adventure, and cautionary tale. All right, yes, it does have a touch of the bodice ripper, but it’s a very light and self-aware one. I can imagine Berrisford giving us a wink and a nudge whenever scenes arise that would normally precede a breathless ravishing (good and bad) and then breezily turning us down a different path from what’s expected. Only slightly different, though, because despite the engaging effervescence of the story, complications tend to hew to familiar tropes, and a number of plot turns and revelations are somewhat contrived.
There are secrets and misunderstandings as well as a good deal of inner struggles in Raef, whose point of view guides us through the novel. He’s the classic innocent about to have his world turned upside-down, his idealized views suffering a bit of a battering. It’s for this reason those misunderstandings and secrets are able to work despite their being an overused romantic complication. It’s also for this reason we get to enjoy – and empathize with – painful lessons he learns about human nature, physical beauty, love, and willful ignorance. Despite his naïveté, Raef’s no dummy, and when he’s burned, he knows to back away from the fire again and again and again. And though he still suffers from an occasional error in judgment, he’s quick to realize it and is always proactive in turning things around. The wide-eyed innocent is no nebbish who needs constant rescuing; if he still falls short in getting himself out of a sticky situation, he at least meets Kemp halfway.
The setting is nicely detailed, though the mer world could’ve used a bit of development, considering how alien its residents are to the human world. There’s a great deal of beauty to revel in, given Raef’s description both as a merman and a human, as well as a rich and varied culture with the bazaars and the elders and their grim traditions. As it stands, we’re left defaulting to images from popular culture (see: The Little Mermaid, complete with King Triton’s heavy-handed treatment of Ariel). The human world as well as the Alice O’Shanty, in contrast, are nicely detailed without weighing scenes down with too much atmosphere and trivialities.
I suppose the only niggle I have involves the minor characters. There’s a painful lesson on love at first sight, and when Raef finally discovers the complexity of human nature, the minor characters involved turn one-dimensional. The beautiful villain, up close, is actually ugly or has ugly details in his features Raef couldn’t see from a distance. Moreover, the villain is evil through and through, his mother just as twisted, and everyone under his thumb and working for him (save for Stephen) is physically ugly and equally as bad as their master. The good guys are very good or at least pure in heart and are honorable, and they’re either physically beautiful or scarred but still good-looking if Raef were to stand still and look. Ali, Henna, and Galyna are at least peripheral characters, and they’re appropriately painted with less detailed brushstrokes. That said, I still regret the lack of attention given the mer world, considering the maturation process Raef goes through by being subjected to the human world. It would’ve provided us with an excellent mirror held up to the wild unpredictability of mortals, especially when we consider the heartbreaking ambivalence Ali feels toward his lot, and Henna’s own rebellious stand against her father.
This was an enjoyable read overall. Despite what I felt are its shortcomings, I really had fun with it, and I highly recommend an evening immersed in this book, with a cup of hot tea and some macaroons. I’ve never read a novel cover-to-cover in one sitting before; I happily did it with this.
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