Written by: Sonia Faruqi
Published by: Pegasus Books
Synopsis: Coralline is a shy mermaid in the Atlantic Ocean whose idyllic life is ruined by an oil spill that gravely sickens her little brother. Desperate to save him, she embarks on a quest to find a legendary elixir. She encounters a human man, Izar, who’s left his life on land behind to find a cure for his dying father. He doesn’t tell her that his family runs Ocean Dominion, an enemy corporation whose ships plunder her waters daily.
Fate pushes the two of them together, even though their worlds are at odds. Accompanied by a colourful troupe of animals, Coralline and Izar travel through coral reefs and seabed cities, trailed by murderous adversaries and warring ships. Their secrets threaten to tear them apart, while a growing attraction adds to the danger. Ultimately, each of them faces an impossible choice. Should Coralline remain with the world she knows, including her fiancé, or should she relinquish everything for a stranger who might betray her? And Izar holds a secret of his own–one that might cause him to lose Coralline forever.
Set deep within the Atlantic Ocean and focusing on the complicated relationship between a mermaid and a human, The Oyster Thief naturally invites comparison to The Little Mermaid. Tonally, the novel fits between Han Christian Andersen’s dark original incarnation of the fairy tale and Walt Disney’s animated musical as our hero character sets off on a quest to rescue her brother from slow, agonising death at the hands of pollution. Much like the Disney classic, author Sonia Faruqi has a marine menagerie of talking animals accompany her mermaid protagonist but rather than telling a “fish out of water” tale, she subverts the traditional mermaid narrative and has her male hero adopt a “human in the water” role instead. It is a refreshing shake-up, and allows Faruqi to explore the inner-workings of her underwater world where merpeople cure illnesses with algae, investigate murders and adopt animal muses as life-long friends.
The level of world-building on display in this novel is amazing as Faruqi not only creates a living, breathing universe under the sea but she also weaves an intriguing backstory for the lead principals of her novel which unravels as the tale progresses, revealing some shocking connections between characters. With most of the novel taking place underwater, Faruqi faces a challenge in bringing this world to life for the reader – something that her descriptive prose and detailed explanation of the inner-workings of underwater life manage to achieve almost effortlessly. Aside from the odd Google of a specific algae or animal, I was able to envisage the underwater environment very easily which made it all the more enchanting. I also enjoyed the names of the characters (Coralline, Pavonis, Abalone, etc.) which felt authentically nautical, making this fantasy world all the more real.
At the heart of The Oyster Thief lies a love story between man and mermaid – a fractious pairing as these star-crossed lovers come from two completely different worlds that are at odds with each other. Alternating between character POVs, Faruqi establishes dramatic tension as events build to unavoidable tragedy to propels the second act of the novel, seeding plenty of dramatic tension and conflict to blossom towards the finale. As the reader, we are aware of the secrets that will form a wedge between the couple, but at the same time, we witness them unavoidably become attached to each other during their quest. This middle-section of the novel is the most enthralling as Coralline and Izar undergo an odyssey across the ocean to recover a mystical elixir rumoured to cure death. Faruqi does such a great job with her characters here, bringing them together reluctantly and forming an unbreakable bond that fuels the final third of the novel. It is entirely believable that these two will fall in love, and the adventure is extremely enjoyable and makes the more dramatic elements of the final act all the more nail-biting.
One of my criticisms of the novel comes from the final third, where Faruqi has to unravel the secrets and mystery she has skillfully set up throughout the novel – there are moments where character’s have huge unrealistic monologues to fill in every gap in the plot and I feel that there may have been more natural ways to reveal this information. In an effort to ensure that her earlier clues were noticed, it feels that Faruqi over-explains some of the mystery. There were some reveals that I figured out early on due to the heavy-handed nature of some of the clues, so when the exposition came, it felt inorganic. I also had some issues with character’s making leaps in logic, particularly in the final few chapters, so some more work on the back-end of the novel would have tightened up some of those inconsistencies. It seems like there was excitement to reveal the secrets and put those final puzzle pieces in place that the book lost some of the measured pace and realism of the earlier half.
While Faruqi deserves heavy praise for her world-building, it is her wonderful character interactions that also ensures that novel doesn’t sink beneath the surface. I loved Coralline’s group of animal friends that accompanied her and Izar on their quest: Pavonis, a whale shark; Nacre, a sea snail and Alstair, a pregnant male seahorse. Each with unique personalities that suit their species, these creatures provide light relief throughout – much like how Ariel is supported by Flounder, Sebastian and Scuttle. It is these little reflections of The Little Mermaid that make The Oyster Thief, and its underwater world, seem familiar yet completely different as events take darker turns. I would recommend The Oyster Thief as a YA novel for fans of The Little Mermaid who want a more complex and adult take on the genre. That said, it is equally enjoyable for adults who’ve sat through multiple viewings of the Disney classic!
Surprisingly, since it is a debut novel, The Oyster Thief is rich with confidence thanks to its strong world-building and engaging character work. Sonia Faruqi does a great job at tackling the mermaid genre with a fresh voice and creating a story that stands apart from The Little Mermaid. While there are a few missteps towards the end, I found the novel truly enchanting throughout and would definitely recommend it to anyone who ever wanted to be a mermaid, or meet one!