Lost Voices by Sarah Porter

So, I guess I’m not huge on vengeance as a driver for protagonists. It’s just not my thing. I also, apparently, am not into the whole dark evil mermaids thing, at least not as it’s applied here. And, as we’ve previously established, I enjoy both young adult and middle-grade lit. But something went wrong here. This book is full of things I should have enjoyed, but something about it just… missed its mark for me. I guess I should probably try to figure out why that is. (Trigger warnings for mentions of rape and abuse apply here, which…may explain some things)

In Lost Voices, Luce is a 14 year old girl living with her abusive uncle after her mother died and her father was lost at sea. When he attempts to rape her, drunkenly mistaking her for her mother whom he was in love with, she – in the words of the book – surrenders her humanity in her last few moments of life, and wakes up as a mermaid. She finds herself joined by a whole tribe of mermaids – beautiful, immortal girls, who all suffered tremendously at the hands of humans and became mermaids in their death. They have the power of sirens, to sing ships to their doom, and they do so, viewing it as righteous and just retribution for the abuses they’ve suffered.So… I get the appeal of a revenge story in this context. The protagonist suffers at the hands of the villain and the protagonist enacts sweet, sweet justice upon them. This also works for secondary and tertiary characters as well – revenge is a very powerful driver, for both characters and for stories as a whole. But I think that’s where this story flounders (…no fish pun intended). Luce and the other girls never actually enact revenge on the people who wronged them. In fact, after his rape attempt, Luce’s uncle is never seen again in the story, nor are any of the others who abused the mermaids. Rather, they enact “revenge” upon humanity as a whole, sinking ships almost at random. This, uh… doesn’t work. Not in story and not out of story. This is the first book in a series, so perhaps that’s resolved in later books, but it simply doesn’t work here.

In the modern era of publishing, series are far more common than standalone books. But I think that makes it harder to remember a good bit of writing advice I’ve seen in multiple places – the first book in a series needs to be able to stand alone, at least to some extent. I think this advice is mostly given in the sense that if your first book tanks, you will not be able to publish later books in the series. Nowadays, with more and more publishing contracts being for a series and not a standalone book, the context may be less relevant, but I think it’s still worth remembering. You can’t rely on readers picking up your second book right away to complete the story. Each book in a series needs to tell something of a complete story on its own, even within the framework of the overarching series plot.

Some of my other problems with this book came with Luce’s interactions with the other mermaids, specifically Catarina, Anais, and Samantha. It even shows up a bit before she’s turned into a mermaid, when she’s still living in her human town. There’s a lot of “I’m not like other girls” in this book. The phrase itself never appears, but the attitude certainly does. Most, if not all, of the other mermaids are shown to be vain, fickle, shallow, and unnecessarily, callously cruel. And it’s implied more than once that this is not due to their transformation into mermaids or the abuse heaped upon them as humans. This is just who they are. But Luce is different, she’s kind and shy and likes to read and gag me with a spoon. I know this is exceedingly common in YA lit – the “relatable” protagonist, intended to resemble no one so much as the reader herself, a mostly blank canvas to project onto. It sucks, it’s a stupid trope, and it is almost never well-done enough to justify its existence. It’s lazy.

Catarina in and of herself has issues, although I think she’s one of the better-written characters in this book (certainly better than the super flat Luce). Catarina is the queen of the mermaids, because she has the best voice (until Luce comes along, anyway). She can sing the most powerful songs to lure sailors to their deaths, and that gives her the right to rule. I guess I didn’t expect to see “might makes right” in a fluffy teen girl book about mermaids, but that’s a decent twist, at least. If only it had actually come to something in this book, and didn’t (probably) wait for the next books to come out.

One of Catarina’s revealed secrets during this book is that she picks out handsome sailors from the ships they sink and makes out with them and keeps them conscious for a time, until they drown. This is portrayed as being an issue only because it breaks the mermaid code of having no contact with humans at all. Except, it doesn’t, I don’t think. The mermaid code is written as saying that any human who sees or hears a mermaid has to die; they cannot live and possibly give away the mermaids’ secrets. Except, I mean, Catarina is drowning them. They totally die. To me, I guess that wouldn’t break the mermaid code. However, it is creepy as fuck, and I’m surprised that none of the other characters picked up on or cared about that (especially those who were or were almost raped themselves). That’s definitely… rape-y behavior, there, Catarina.

As for the whole, dark/evil mermaids thing, I don’t think I would have had a problem with it if it weren’t also for the problems with the revenge plot. Luce’s problem is always “we shouldn’t be drowning people” and not “hey guys, we’re drowning the wrong people”, which would be way more interesting. Also, nothing else the mermaids do is particularly…interesting? They sink ships, they eat mussels, they swim, they sleep and that’s… literally about it. And considering they don’t sink ships every day (to avoid suspicion), being a mermaid sounds super boring. If this book is supposed to be revenge-fantasy wish-fulfillment for teen girls, I feel Porter should have at least made being a mermaid sound fun. It reminds me too much of The Mermaid’s Sister, a book I read several years ago, where we’re supposed to pity the girl who becomes a literal mermaid princess, and relate to the sister who falls in love with a boring-ass human dude on land. No thanks, I’ll take being mermaid royalty any day.

The other thing that I think has really irked me about this book is that it couldn’t decide who it was aimed at. Like I said in the intro, I like both YA and middle-grade. But I don’t think it works for a book to try and be both. Like, the protagonist is 14, which is a little young for YA territory, but also, I don’t think you’re allowed to put a fairly graphic rape scene in middle grade books typically (another reason to avoid this book if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing). The characters are mostly between 13 and 17, but they all act approximately between 8 to 11 years old. The writing itself, the author’s diction, seems juvenile, aimed at readers who would be in the middle-grade age range, but the tone is inconsistent throughout the book. I’m pretty sure that I picked this book up in the YA section of the bookstore, but it doesn’t really seem to fit there, to me.

I think this book would have benefited from a better and more thorough editor (or possibly an author who listened to their editor; I don’t know what happened behind the scenes of making this book), a more clear vision of what it wanted to be, and a better understanding of the type of story it was trying to be in the first place. Maybe some of these things improve in later books, but I don’t intend to pick up the second one to find out.

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