It may be a little early to start talking about things we normally associate with the beach, but mermaids and sea creatures have existed in literature and folklore for generations, in all types of climates and weather. As a massive fan of anything mystical or fantastical related to the ocean, in whatever season, I put together a list of some must-read books featuring mermaids, magical water-dwellers, and people with fin-like features.
Ok, hear me out. Yes, this book is technically historical fiction, and no, it does not include an actual magical or mystical creature, BUT— its main character has webbed fingers and swims in the Hudson river at the behest of her father, an evil man who runs a “freak show” in Coney Island. As part of his efforts to capitalize on the unusual, he bids his daughter to trick people into thinking there is a mermaid living in New York waters. It’s a beautiful and unusual novel about love and turbulent times. And if you’ve ever read Alice Hoffman, you already know she is a master of making everything seem a little more magical — with or without mystical creatures.
Coralie Sardie’s father runs a Coney Island freak show where she appears as “the Mermaid,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. When she meets Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant photographer, they become embroiled in a moving story of young love in tumultuous times.
Gothic storytelling set in seedy Victorian London, written by Jess Kidd? I’m in! Her newest novel follows Bridie, a female detective endeavoring to discover what happened to a young missing girl…who also seems to have unique, potentially aquatic, characteristics. Bridie doesn’t buy into the rumors about the child's origins or powers, but things begin to take quite a mysterious and extraordinary turn. Mixing historical detail with fairytale elements, it’s an absolutely riveting and completely enjoyable read.
A January Book of the Month Pick
“Miraculous and thrilling…A few pages in and I was determined to read every word Jess Kidd has ever written.” —Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Once Upon a River
“An impossible wonder: a book for everyone, and yet somehow a book just for you...A sumptuous tour of Victorian London, resurrected here with a vigor and vibrancy to rival The Crimson Petal and the White...Utterly magical.”—A.J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“A perfect mix of hilarity, the macabre, and a touch of romance, Things in Jars is ridiculously entertaining, all as it sneaks up and makes you feel things…Simply: Jess Kidd is so good it isn’t fair.” —Erika Swyler, bestselling author of The Book of Speculation and Light from Other Stars
In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.
Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
One of NPR’s best books of 2019, The Deep is a profound, beautiful novella. It follows a community of water-dwelling people who are descendants of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships that crossed the Atlantic. Most of the community members have forgotten their traumatic past— except Yetu, the historian. In an attempt to escape the intensity of the memories and the pain, Yetu rushes to the surface, and in doing so, encounters the world above. It’s inspired by a song by Clipping, and it’s an incredibly vivid, original story.
Octavia E. Butler meets Marvel’s Black Panther in The Deep, a story rich with Afrofuturism, folklore, and the power of memory, inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping.
Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
The Deep is “a tour de force reorientation of the storytelling gaze…a superb, multilayered work,” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) and a vividly original and uniquely affecting story inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping.
This was one of the most surprising books I read in the last few years. Lucy’s life is falling apart, so she decides to escape to Los Angeles and house-sit for her sister. One evening on the beach, she comes across a man hanging out in the water off of a jetty. He turns out to be a merman, and they begin an affair. It was an unusual and vibrant exploration of love, and how it can both reinvigorate and destroy a person.
In this mesmerizing and detailed depiction of the UK in the 1700s, Jonah Hancock finds a dead mermaid. He decides to try to profit from it, and during his travels showcasing his discovery, he encounters a courtesan with whom he ends up falling in love. However, mermaids have power — even dead ones, apparently — and that power threatens their relationship and their lives. It’s an intricately woven tale with exceptional descriptions of the period.
Sarah Perry’s novel uses the possibility of a giant sea snake as a way to explore the struggles between science and faith, fact and folklore. A scientific woman in Victorian England ventures to a place where rumors of a Loch-ness-like monster are growing rapidly. She becomes friends with a local vicar, and together they banter and debate science and religion, as they search for the monster’s presence. The subject matter is complex and deep, and Perry’s writing is beautiful—she’s able to lyrically bring everything together so you’re completely enchanted the entire time you’re reading.
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