Reasons for Inclusion: WoC protagonist. Issues of refugee crises and racial politics discussed. Issues of class and privilege discussed.
My Rating: 5/5 stars
I’ll admit it, the first thing about Breakwater that caught my attention was the cover. Mermaids! Black mermaids! The summary sealed the deal: a young woman working towards peace in a time of conflict is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy reading.
I was proven right within two pages. The very first thing the protagonist Jade does is defend a naiad who is being unfairly targeted by guards.
The naiads arrived in the mer kingdom Thessalonike ten years ago as refugees from an environmental crisis in their homeland. Coexistence hasn’t been easy – most naiads work as servants to wealthy mer and live in a segregated district of the city. Many mer fear the naiads’ magical powers and the impact they will have on the city. And most suspicious of all, naiads have been going missing and the mer authorities haven’t investigated.
And then the young prince Jade was about to marry murders a naiad woman. His trial takes place against a backdrop of growing tensions, injustice, and conspiracy.
Jade already has a complicated relationship with the naiads. While her family is one of the few to treat them with respect, at the start of the story she is mostly ignorant to the struggles they face as a minority in the kingdom. She is, however, aware of the deep conflict between the mer and naiad communities. Her diplomat father once tried to arrange a peace with the more radical naiad separatist groups, and was murdered by rebels.
Despite this loss, Jade refuses to give in to hate. She knows that peace will only come from compromise and cooperation, not from oppression or revolution or segregation. This philosophy sets her in opposition to not only the mer elite who wish to banish the naiads but also the factions of naiads agitating for violent uprising.
Jade first has to learn how little she knows of the issue. Some naiads, seeing all mer as their enemies, are reluctant to accept that this privileged young mer means well, but some are willing to work with her. Her desire for peace and justice makes her an outcast among her friends and risks her social status, but even when it would be easier to stop fighting, to take advantage of her high status, she keeps working for justice.
From the language up, the book is very aware that underwater beings live in three-dimensional space. Subtle details remind the reader that these characters don’t walk or breathe air. Characters swim or float, wear wraps and cloaks, sleep in hammocks. Emotions manifest as fluttering gills and flattened fins. Slang and cursing also fit the setting.
While status in this world is heavily based in racial and class divides, it seems mostly egalitarian in terms of gender. Women and men can both hold power, and women are not questioned for doing so. There is currently a King; Jade is named for a historical queen. Women’s names have matronyms and men’s names have patronyms.
A great deal of thought and imagination went into the structure and politics of this world. Jade is one of best characters I’ve read in a long time. While of course not a direct analogy, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the conflict in Thessalonike and any number of real-world crises. I’ve felt like Jade many times in my life, helpless in the face of conflict and oppression and unhappy with messages of anger and violence. It’s heartening and inspiring to see that justice might be achieved, that cooperation and compassion and communication are possible even in the worst of times.
I will be eagerly awaiting the sequel!