What if mermaids existed, and what if mermaids were evil? That’s the premise of Sarah Porter’s Lost Voices, the first in a trilogy that promises to be deliciously dark and complex. I was worried about the emerging mermaid trend in YA, but I’m not as concerned anymore, because Porter has illustrated that right out of the gate, the trend can be turned on its head, warped, and challenged; this is not a world of sweet, sultry mermaids, or even those haunted by romantic entanglements, but a vicious and harsh climate where only the strong survive.
Luce has had a difficult life. From early childhood, she’s been alone with her conman father, moving from place to place in a van as he enacts one scheme after another. When her father settles with her in Alaska and dies in a shipwreck, she’s shuffled into the custody of her uncle, who turns out to be a highly abusive and terrifying man. Luce lives a faded life between the lines, not liked or respected by anyone at school, and desperate to elude her uncle’s attentions. When he assaults her and leaves her to die on a cliff one night, that could be the end of her story, except that instead, she slips into the water and wakes up a mermaid.
This is where the story could have turned saccharine, with Luce finding true happiness as a mermaid in a world where the victims of horrific abuse in childhood are given a second chance at life in the ocean, but that’s not how things work out in Lost Voices. Instead, the girls—for there are no mermen here—are not just mermaids but sirens, compelled to use their voices to lure ships to their doom. Caught in eternal life at the age of their deaths, Luce and girls like her are drawn to ships, and use the power of their voices to lull sailors into a dreamlike state that renders them incapable of steering their ships safely, or fighting back against the mermaids as they drown.
Most of the girls view this as their right and obligation, taking out shiploads of adults, particularly men, to prevent the abuse of more girls like them, but Luce feels emotionally conflicted. While she understands the appeal of singing, she worries about the innocent people caught up in the war that has been created between mermaids and humans, and she wonders if they’re truly behaving in the right, or if they’re just leading themselves to believe it. This leads to conflict with the queen of the band of mermaids she falls in with, and it creates a strange and complex dynamic as she finds herself opposed to many of the things the band accepts as normal.
In a world where abused girls turn to mermaids, some are too young to live on their own; infants and toddlers fill the waters around the mermaids’ hideaway, desperate to survive and inevitably becoming orca bait. Many of the older mermaids take on a jaded approach to the deaths of the younger children, arguing that there is nothing they can do to save them, and there’s no hope of actually teaching them how to use their voices and survive in the harsh climate of the ocean. It’s a strange paradox to see young women battling with the legacy of horrific abuse viewing the terrible fate of babies and young children with indifference at best and sometimes active hostility, for some of the mermaids are actually repulsed by the children, finding them disgusting to look at and interact with.
For Luce and her band, everything changes radically when they incorporate a new mermaid into their midst, a former spoiled rich girl who dealt with her own sorrows, but appears reluctant to confront them. She changes the nature of the band by insisting on reminders of her human life, twisting the mermaid way of life and goading her fellow mermaids into greater and greater risks to satisfy her whims. Luce finds herself troubled by the new girl, even as she watches the girls around her caught up in her social whirl, and it puts her at odds with the queen.
In some ways, Lost Voices echoes the experiences of real-world environments, sans mermaids, as it’s about a group of girls with shifting social dynamics that radically change when a new girl is introduced. As popularity rises and falls and the girls find themselves led along by the newest of their band, others find themselves in positions of outsiderhood, struggling to determine where they fit in within the larger whole. Many girls have struggled with similar situations in the real world, especially victims of abuse, who often find themselves marginalised socially because of their experiences and the fact that others view them as tainted, damaged, or upsetting to be around.
For the mermaids of Lost Voices, the commonality found through surviving abuse splinters when they discover that they, too, are subject to the same whims and complex social structures that plague human society. As Luce struggles to navigate her changing social circle and her fall from favor with the queen, she’s also forced to reflect on the larger nature of what mermaids do, and whether there’s something else they could be doing with their voices, something that could test the boundaries of what it means to be a siren. In search of empowerment, she clashes with tradition, and finds it even harder to position herself among friends and allies.
Porter has written a murky, strange, dark fantasy here, a story that is far from the light and fluffy pop culture depiction of mermaids. Her integration of sirens with mermaid mythology is fascinating, as is her exploration of social dynamics and the experience of oppression and abuse within a somewhat unexpected setting. Her adaptation of the mermaid is an intriguing take on an old tale, showing that fairytales can spin in all kinds of new directions under the right guidance.