3.5/5 stars — a gritty plot offset by glimpses of love and levity
Speak the Ocean is a mermaid story for the adult set, billed as “Blackfish meets The Little Mermaid,” but I think it’s closer to “Blackfish meets Beauty and the Beast plus mermaids.” Obviously that’s not as catchy, but it describes the plot better, in my opinion, particularly an eventual Stockholm syndrome-esque dynamic between main-character narrators Finn and Erie.
In Speak the Ocean, mermaid handler Finn has to weigh his dream of training a popular performing Mer against the discovery that the Mer are intelligent beings. The mermaid in his care, Erie, fights to survive in an alien world and to understand the humans who now control her fate.
For me, one of the best parts of the book is the contrast between the two MCs. It can be tough to balance an unsympathetic character with a likable one, but Finn was a captivating train wreck of a college kid while Erie served as his more self-aware foil. Rebecca Enzor differentiated their points of view nicely, imbuing Finn’s sections with snappy dialogue and no-frills prose, while Erie’s POV came across more introspective and poetic.
Finn begins the story self-focused and seeking recognition for his work with the performing Mer; while his character doesn’t achieve as much growth as I might have liked, his journey toward empathy and activism in the Mer’s favor is interesting to read. Erie, in contrast, is broken down over the course of the book, which is a shame because she’s the real star in my eyes. She learns the humans’ language and does her best to make sense of her situation and her captors’ motives; she battles panic attacks and remains protective of her dolphin companion even during torture. If Finn got the chance to become a better person during the story, Erie was instead forced to cling to the vestiges of her personhood. Overall, the intersection of their journeys was fascinating if often painful to experience.
What my rating comes down to is that the novel wasn’t—if you’ll forgive my turn of phrase—as woke as I hoped or expected. Yes, it uses the captive Mer as a parallel to real-life sea animal performing shows and illustrates the cruelty of humans profiting from animals’ imprisonment in that setting. However, Finn never actually seems to grasp that lesson. He becomes sympathetic toward Erie a) because she’s beautiful and she, desperate to stay on his good side so he’ll free her, goes out of her way to amuse him; and b) only once he has nothing left to lose by advocating for her. This would be fine if their friendship/relationship was portrayed in a negative or at least skeptical light, but it’s framed as a real thing, ignoring the power disparity of one partner literally being the other’s captive and relying on him to stay alive. The ending felt like it gave Finn an undeserved blank slate even though he’d enslaved, tortured, and killed half a dozen sentient beings, something the story never fully addressed. (Also, the narrative seemed to get hung up on ‘animal abuse’ even as it became clear the Mer were sentient—not animals at all—but that’s a separate problem.)
Speak the Ocean was an unexpected and unique story, and I’m glad I read it. The plot was full of twists, a few baddies got their just deserts, and the ending fell on the positive side of bittersweet. I don’t mind rounding my rating up to four stars; while this book hit a few wrong notes for me, I enjoyed Enzor’s creative slant on a well-known story and I don’t want to dissuade others from picking it up. I’ll definitely check out anything else she writes in the future. I’d recommend Speak the Ocean with the above reservations to readers who enjoyed Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep.
Content warnings: gore, murder/death, explicit sex, animal cruelty, enslavement of a sentient nonhuman species, self-harm, suicidal ideation
** I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review. **