Tuesday, March 10, 2020

"Mermaid Moon"

Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and sometime professor of creative writing and modern literature. She lives in a creepy old farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, with seven cats, a big dog, a spouse, and some peacocks that supposedly belong to a neighbor.

Cokal's first young adult novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, received several national awards, including a silver medal from the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award series. Her books for adults, Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, received some nice notice too.

Cokal applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Mermaid Moon, and reported the following:
From page 69, this is the opening of chapter 15, narrated by Sanna.
“Ever so lucky, to be marrying the young baron, I mean,” says the plump maid, Kett, whom the Baroness has assigned as my servant and my jailor. She’s bustling around the chamber I’ve been given, a place too small for us both to move around at once. “There’s ever so many girls in love with him. Not that he’d give any of us more than a buss and a tumble, and maybe a bit of a song. He’s very musical, you know …”

While she prattles and tidies, I curl onto the too-short, too-narrow bed with the rose thorns still in my flesh. The bed is nice and soft, crackling with landish grass that smells of the sun. It makes me realize how very tired I am. Magic is hard work.

“… I’m sure he’ll stop all that now that you’re betrothed. The singing, I mean. To other girls.” Kett positions a flame in a tiny wall niche nearby; it is burning in a dish of oil that smells like fish, which is soothing.
This chapter is a sort of quiet bridge between big set pieces. Sanna has had quite a day. First she made her tail into a pair of legs (using magic that Kett doesn’t know about yet), then she walked to Baroness Thyrla’s castle and stumbled into a rose vine growing along the walls. When the thorns pierced her flesh, the magic in her blood inadvertently turned the white roses red. As if that apparent miracle weren’t enough, she had to engage in a spellcasting duel with Thyrla herself. After conjuring creatures that weren’t there before, Sanna is “rewarded” with an engagement to Thyrla’s wastrel son, the young man who enjoys singing terrible songs to woo girls whom he kisses and tumbles and abandons.

So on to the test. Does page 69 pivot the themes of the book? It does allude to the battles of magic and will that Sanna will have to fight over and over, particularly against Thyrla, but I think it more significantly represents the rest of the world of the novel. Most of the opinions here are Kett’s, and Kett is an old-fashioned kind of girl—the kind who loves a fairytale courtship with lute playing and a threat of death if the young man isn’t pleased (Oh yes, Thyrla’s ultimate plan involves something much worse than marriage to a boy Sanna does not like).

Sanna’s mermaid flok is matriarchal and nomadic. The mer-maids have the beautiful voices and the power to wreck ships and plunder their riches, so they also have the power within the group. As far as Sanna has experienced life, mer-boys are weaklings who live on the periphery of the flok—occasionally love objects, mostly just not much noticed. Mermaids generally fall in love with other girls.

On land, people are living in the Middle Ages that we recognize. Men are generally dominant, most especially the Heavenly Father. Baroness Thyrla, however, has somehow managed to step around the patriarchy and wrench for herself what power there is in the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands, which isn’t much. But Thyrla has none of the sisterly feeling seen among most of the mermaids; if anything, she’s more eager to exploit other women than she is to use men. She wants to be the queen bee. Sanna has already started to pick up on all this.

Kett, who speaks here, is one of the characters I’ve loved as I’ve reread my manuscript. She’s a really nice person, I think, if somewhat deluded about Baron Peder’s talents as a musician and lover. To me, she represents the possibility that we’ll get a fairytale ending if we hope for it hard enough—but it won’t feel quite as we might expect. And aren’t that wish and that twist the heart of fiction?
Visit Susann Cokal's website.

--Marshal Zeringue