I first came across Our Bloody Pearl when it was entered in last year’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO5). The first thing that drew me in was the gorgeous cover. I am a sucker for a great cover and this one is just plain beautiful. Covers sell, and I was sold even before I read the blurb…
“The ocean is uncontrollable and dangerous. But to the sirens who swim the warm island waters, it’s a home more than worth protecting from the humans and their steam-propelled ships. Between their hypnotic voices and the strength of their powerful tails, sirens have little to fear.
That is, until the ruthless pirate captain, Kian, creates a device to cancel out their songs.
Perle was the first siren captured, and while all since have either been sold or killed, Kian still keeps them prisoner. Though their song is muted and their tail paralyzed, Perle’s hope for escape rekindles as another pirating vessel seizes Kian’s ship. This new captain seems different, with his brilliant smile and his promises that Kian will never again be Perle’s master. But he’s still a human, and a captor in his own way. The compassion he and his rag-tag human family show can’t be sincere… or can it?
Soon it becomes clear that Kian will hunt Perle relentlessly, taking down any siren in her path. As the tides turn, Perle must decide whether to run from Kian forever, or ride the forming wave into battle, hoping their newfound human companions will fight with them.” – Goodreads blurb
My first thought was “murder mermaids…YES!” And while that’s pretty true it isn’t fully true as I’ll explain below.
Our Bloody Pearl is a fun and romantic if somewhat gruesome tale about loss, love, and forgiveness…with a little revenge thrown in. Within its pages you’ll find a story that is both light, airy, and humorous, as well as dark, heavy, and very serious. It’s a strange combination that works because of D.N. Bryn’s ability to tell a good tale.
CHARACTERS AND POV
Our protagonist is Perle, who we first meet locked into a tub within a pirate captain’s cabin in the middle of a sea battle. Perle is a siren (not a mermaid) and we soon come to realize they are disabled and no longer have the use of their fin. It’s a problematic situation for a creature who lives in the ocean and wants to escape. Perle wants nothing more than to free themselves from their captor and return to the sea. Only they can’t. Not without some help at least.
Captian Kian is the antagonist of the story. As notorious pirate, she’s found a way to block the call of the sirens (a game changer in the ongoing fight between humans and sirens). She’s captured and tortured Perle and has a deep hatred for sirens in general. She will hunt them and Perle down even if it kills her.
Captain Dejean is another pirate captain who comes into conflict with Kian. He discovers Perle, “rescues” them and helps to heal them at his island home. Dejean is caring and forgiving, and kind of a stand in for good people everywhere. At least the good people we imagine ourselves to be.
There’s a small cast of other minor characters who add additional depth and detail to the world including both humor and conflict. These additional characters don’t have a lot of depth, but they help move the story along in an enjoyable way.
The entire book is told in the first person from Perle’s POV allowibg you to get inside Perle’s head.
There’s not a whole lot of world building in this book as the setting is pretty tightly confined to one island and the sea immediately surrounding it. That said, there IS world building.
For starters there are sirens! I use that term specifically for two reasons, one because that’s how they are referred to in the book, and two, because they are non-binary and “mermaid” is specifically female. All of the sirens in this book are non-binary and their pronouns are they/them. These sirens are also really, really, scary. At least for humans. They have sharp teeth and claws and have a pretty universal hatred of humans. It would be best to avoid their call on the sea or you’ll be ripped limb from limb and eaten.
This world is also kinda steampunk. It doesn’t have the full on mechanical world of many steampunk novels and it isn’t grey and dreary like some, but it’s there. But it isn’t at the forefront. There are motor vehicles and mechanical lifts and even flying dinghies, but ships are still very much made of wood and use wind power on the sea. The mechanical in this book often takes a back seat in the world building. It’s there but in the background, popping up in specific ways that don’t always feel steampunk, such as the tub designed for Perle.
What is always at the fore in this book is the sea and life upon it or in it. Even when the characters are on the island the understood goal is to return to the sea and a life upon it (for humans) or in it (for sirens)
As is the case with many steampunk novels the “magic” is in the mechanics. There isn’t really any kind of magic system in Our Bloody Pearl unless you count the siren’s song, an ability all sirens have to generate a “call” that calms and lures one into a trance like state which when used against humans lowers their defenses and makes them easy targets. On the other side of things are the mechanical inventions of humans. While many of these are strictly mechanical there some with additional powers that have mysterious power sources not fully explained.
Our Bloody Pearl is well written and the story flows pretty well. I never felt bogged down in the read and never felt like I was pulled out of the narrative because of the writing.
I did find myself tripping over gender at times, and that is TOTALLY ON ME. As I noted above, all of the sirens are non-binary and that took some getting used to for a couple of reasons. The first is because I’m used to the idea of sirens being mermaids (and sometimes mermen). This is because of cultural baggage in centuries of stories handed down. Another reason was the name given to our protagonist Perle. To me the name initially feels feminine and I want to automatically assign gender to it. Again, this is ON ME and something I’m trying to unlearn because it doesn’t have to be that way. I have more to say about this below.
What really pops out in Our Bloody Pearl are themes of loss trust, love and forgiveness. Each of the main characters have lost something dear in their lives. maybe it’s loved ones, maybe its the use of parts of their body, maybe both. Maybe it’s the knowledge they can never live in their natural habitat again. With the loss comes the difficult task of coming to terms with it and whether and how to carry on.
Trust is a huge theme in the book. As a siren who can no longer swim using their fin who can Perle trust to keep them safe in the world when they can’t even swim in the sea? Trust is huge when it comes to survival and protection especially when you might have to trust an enemy.
Love. Because well this is really a fantasy romance. It fits the technical definition for it at least. This theme definitely forms out of the trust one and builds upon it while also making it so much more complicated for the characters.
Then there’s forgiveness. When you work through trust and love you end up at forgiveness. Is it possible? What does it look like? Can it be real?
All-in-all I enjoyed Our Bloody Pearl. I loved the idea of the murder sirens! They were really cool and I admit at times kinda scary. Making the sirens non-binary was something I also really liked about the book. There aren’t enough stories out there with non-binary characters much less species where who are normalized as part of the world. There was a kind of info-dump section where Perle explains their gender and sex but it was also kind of necessary I think for the reader to understand the sirens in more detail.
Making Perle disabled was both a positive and a negative. On one hand it shows a character trying to figure out how to live as a disabled person, but on the other there was a lot of wishing they weren’t so. I think this is pretty natural, and part of Perle’s growth as a character, and I think it was handled well, but it also borders on making it seem that a disability might make you less of a person. I didn’t feel like it ever crossed that line, but I don’t know if I’d read it differently if I was disabled.
I did struggle a little with the idea that Dejean became a savior stand-in. That without him Perle couldn’t survive and that any affection that arose out of their relationship was due to him as her “savior.” In the end I don’t think that’s true, but for much of the book I was torn about it as their relationship developed and it felt like Perle was forced to rely on the aid and care of a human who they naturally hate. It’s the enemies to lovers trope which I usually like but when mixed with Perle’s disability I wasn’t sure about it.
I also never felt truly drawn to Perle. I liked their character and the story but I wasn’t totally sucked in. The same with the other characters.
Ultimately I liked this book but didn’t love it. It was a quick fun read that I never once felt bored with. There were times when I wasn’t totally sure about the level of technology in the world but that really took a backseat to what was an enjoyable read, one that was definitely worth picking up. It packed the right amount of humorous fun with the right amount of danger and conflict to keep me engaged and turning the pages.