Review: Mermaid Steel by Jay Hartlove (2020)

Heat Factor: It takes them a while to figure out how to fit their anatomy together.

Character Chemistry: They say they love each other, but I wouldn’t say they have chemistry.

Plot: Sten the blacksmith and Chielle the mermaid meet and fall in love. Sadly, humans and mermaids don’t get along.

Overall: There’s nothing subtle about this book.

This is Jay Hartlove’s first romance novel. His previous books (which I haven’t read) are fantasy novels and many of the aspects of this book that didn’t work for me *as a romance* are linked to common conventions of the fantasy genre. So, if you are primarily a fantasy reader, who is open to reading fantasy-romance hybrids, you may like this book better than I did. 

I do want to be clear for my pure romance readers: this book does deliver a central romantic relationship that drives a lot of the plot and ends with a pretty traditional HEA.

Let’s start with the things I liked about this book. I loved that Chielle is very much not human. She has two glassy blue eyes and a nose and ears and gills and sharp shark teeth and a layer of blubber under her skin and no hair whatsoever. Ariel she is not. The first time Chielle and Sten kiss, Sten slips Chielle a little tongue and encounters her pointy incisors and immediately retreats, and those are the kinds of details I love in a monster romance.

I liked that the story is actively anti-slut-shaming. Since it’s set in a pseudo-19th-century small village in a land of magic, it would be easy to fall back on “traditional” gender roles. There is a little bit of that (there’s a very weird little scene where Sten meets some teenagers, introduces himself to the young man, and then waits for the young man to introduce the young woman), but the text also makes clear that both Sten and Chielle have had previous lovers—and that it’s not a big deal…for anyone. Sten’s ex is a minor character, and while she’s kind of a villainous vamp, it’s not because she sleeps around (which she does, no one cares), it’s because she’s a sore loser. Are people mad that Sten and Chielle are dating? Hell yes! All interactions between humans and merfolk are frowned upon! But once a character accepts that Sten and Chielle are becoming close it is taken as a given that they would of course have sex and it’s absolutely no big deal and also none of anyone’s business.

I also liked that Hartlove is explicitly writing a love story about overcoming prejudice, and that both Chielle and Sten have to learn from each other in order to reach a solution for their relationship.

However. Everything is a little heavy-handed. The story is an allegory of colonial encounter and I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the idea that Prejudice against the Other is Bad. In addition, there is not much acknowledgment, much less examination, of the power dynamics at play—beyond the fact that the (white) Alcan people have better weapons, and have already dominated another (land-dwelling, indigenous) ethnic group before turning their sights on the Merrow.

These problems bled over into the romance as well. The story is much more focused on Sten and the prejudice he has to overcome with the other humans, as he figures out how to repair human-Merrow relations. (There is a whiff of White Savior about him.) While Chielle is not a passive character, I felt like I had less insight into her interiority, and into the dynamics of Merrow life which contributed to their distrust of humans. I am obviously painting fantasy with a broad brush here, but I do think that a focus on plot over interiority is more common and accepted in genre fantasy than in genre romance.

From a romance-reading standpoint, their relationship left me wanting more because there was no tension there. Sten and Chielle face enormous obstacles to having a successful relationship (incompatible anatomy, different habitats, and widespread mistrust), but they never perceive these things as problems. They’re just like, “Oop, I think I’m in love” and that’s that.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

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