a feminist siren-song of a fairy tale
Listen to a podcast interview with the delightful Gabriela Pereira of DIY-MFA. We talk about writing through dark times, why I love prologues, how to write from mood, and many, many writing tips.
Fresh in March 2020.
“Susann Cokal’s latest miracle, Mermaid Moon, springs from the tides where Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid once swam—and walked to land. But she delivers something even more rich and strange, and a mermaid heroine who will swim away with your heart.”
—Gregory Maguire, author of
Wicked and Egg & Spoon
Reviews for Mermaid Moon
Sanna has never been quite like the other mermaids in her clan—she is not as strong a swimmer, and she sometimes struggles to breathe in the water. Eventually she comes to learn that this is because her mother was landish, not seavish, but the witch in her clan cast a spell to erase all memories of the circumstances of Sanna’s birth. Determined to learn more, Sanna too becomes a student of magic, eventually creating a pair of legs for herself. But on the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands she finds a baroness with dark magics of her own, a man ripe for love, and a community searching for a saint. This gorgeously designed, lushly written offering from Printz Honor winner Cokal (The Kingdom of Little Wounds, 2013), which builds upon the themes of The Little Mermaid, explores how femininity manifests in Sanna’s matriarchal society and outside of it. Told by a vast chorus of voices, this is a rich and stunning story that dives to startling depths, and literary teens will savor it.
— Maggie Reagan
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—
Sanna and her marreminde sisters lure passing sailors to their deaths with siren songs, as their mothers did before them. Though Sanna's voice is one of the most beautiful, Sanna's mother was landish, not seavish, a fact so unacceptable that the flok matriarch cast a spell of forgetting over everyone involved. Armed with only a name, Lisabet, Sanna magicks herself legs and walks unsteadily ashore to find the castle and, she hopes, news of her mother. Sanna's magic inspires jealousy in the powerful and unnatural Baroness, who manipulates a betrothal to her son. Meanwhile, floating on the seaskin, Sanna's sea sisters and father desperately wait for a song to indicate Sanna's progress and safety.
Cokal's moody and sea-drenched tale weaves touches of Hans Christian Andersen with a dash of Pied Piper, using language that gorgeously sets each scene, including the exceedingly creepy bone vault, with its tiny baby skulls and "the yellow-white ribs known as Mother."
Lyrical, complex, and occasionally dark, with rich rewards for patient readers.
VERDICT Suggest this to thoughtful readers looking for strong females, unexpected twists, and a relatively happy ending. A good fit for fans of Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island.
This immersive retelling of “The Little Mermaid” follows Sanna, a half-landish mermaid who leaves her flok to seek her human mother. Advised by the ancient, riddle-tongued sea witch Sjældent, Sanna is bound for the castle ruled by ageless and unkind Baroness Thyrla, a witch who steals youth and power from others, even her infant children.
When an accidental display of magic convinces the local priest and townsfolk that Sanna is a miracle worker, she finds herself betrothed to Thyrla’s attractive but useless son, but she’s no closer to finding her mother or securing the undefined treasure that Sjældent requires as payment.
Juxtaposed against the patriarchal culture wherein Thyrla has amassed and maintained power (one in which rape and infanticide are common), Cokal (The Kingdom of Little Wounds) creates a well-developed matriarchal mermaid mythology in which women couple, bonded by love and respect, and men are largely unnecessary. Through several voices and richly detailed prose, these markedly different worlds overlap and diverge to impart a nuanced exploration of power, family, faith, and love. Ages 14–up.
Reviewed in BookPage
Mermaid Moon’s heroine is Sanna, whose father is seavish (a merman) but whose mother is land-ish (a human). To forestall the inevitable scandal, a witch cast a forgetting spell on nearly everyone present at Sanna’s birth.
Now a young woman, Sanna has become the witch’s apprentice, but her dearest hope in life is to go on land and find her human mother.
Cokal, whose previous book, The
Kingdom of Little Wounds, received a Printz Honor, spins a sprawling plot, populated by a large cast of both sea- and land-dwelling characters. (Oh, and there’s also a dragon.)
Amid this fantasy world, Sanna is swept up by the problems of humankind—namely the highly religious and patriarchal society of the land-ish. When she comes ashore, the villagers regard her as a saint, and the local baroness effectively kidnaps Sanna to force her to marry her son. Sanna not only needs to find her mother, but she must also escape the confines of land-ish
While Sanna’s quest to learn the truth is sometimes painful, it’s also, in the end, worthwhile. Mermaid Moon is an
action- packed tale of parental
abandonment, familial longing, treachery and dark magic with an appealingly determined heroine.
To help understand a character and how she lived, I made this little house. The character is Old Olla, a beekeeper, and the story of making the house is on this page.
In the far northern reaches of civilization, a mermaid leaves the sea to look for her land-dwelling mother among people as desperate for magic and miracles as they are for life and love.
Blood calls to blood; charm calls to charm.
It is the way of the world.
Come close and tell us your dreams.
Sanna has been living as a mermaid — but she is only half seavish. The night of her birth, a sea-witch cast a spell that made Sanna’s people, including her landish mother, forget how and where she was born.
Now Sanna is sixteen and an outsider in the seavish flok where women rule and mothers mean everything. She is determined to go to land and learn who she is. So she apprentices herself to the ancient witch, Sjældent, to learn the magic of making and unmaking. With a new pair of legs and a mysterious quest to complete for her teacher, she follows a clue that leads her ashore on the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands.
Her fellow mermaids wait floating on the seaskin as Sanna stumbles into a wall of white roses thirsty for blood, a hardscrabble people hungry for miracles, and a baroness of fading beauty who will do anything to live forever, even at the expense of her own children.
From the author of the Michael L. Printz Honor Book The Kingdom of Little Wounds comes a gorgeously told tale of belonging, sacrifice, fear, hope, and mortality.
Interviews, Guest Blog Posts, and the Like
Interview with JeanBookNerd, 2020: on my very first novel, written at age thirteen, my best date ever, and what's the big idea behind Mermaid Moon.
Interview with Book Hounds, 2020: what's on my nightstand, outlining vs. winging it, inviting dead authors to dinner.
Guest post, Pandora's Books, 2020: how a single page cut from The Kingdom of Little Wounds produced Mermaid Moon.
TTC Books and More, 2020: ten favorite characters from all of my novels, with facts random, fun, and/or true facts about each.
When I first come to the Thirty-Seven Dark Islands in the northernmost reach of our known world, what I imagine, what I intend, is finding my mother. She was just a girl when she made me, and she must be a woman now; but blood calls to blood, and though I was taken from her at birth, in a place my people don’t remember because the witch of our flok worked a magic of forgetting—still there must be something, must be, in me to spark recognition from her.
I think my mother and I will recognize each other, all at once and completely, on first sight. I have my father’s yellow hair and pale green eyes, with something of him in the point of my nose, but the rest of me (I believe) must be hers. She and her people will know me by my cheekbones, broad shoulders, and wide mouth, and they’ll rejoice to find the baby was not lost; and then some lost and broken part of myself will be found and fixed.
That doesn’t happen.
As I approach the castle where my quest truly begins, the ground rolls and twists. My legs tangle in the soft blue skirts of the dress I’m wearing, the overgown I chose from a chest that obviously once belonged to a fine woman. I also took a white veil and a silver diadem for my head.
I anticipated this awkwardness—getting my land legs, Sjældent calls it, and it happened each time I practiced on solid ground. In a way I’m still practicing now, as I have a few islets to cross after the pebbly beach where I landed myself. Sometimes there’s no bridge from one islet to the other, but I don’t need to jump and don’t trust my legs to do it, though a landish person certainly would; I find it’s easy to wade, skirts hiked to my knees. But all of this is tiring, and I’m soon winded from effort. I ache in unaccustomed places. With each step, I wonder if I should turn back or perhaps wait for another day, as my destination seems all but impossible to reach.
“Go to the castle,” said ancient Sjældent. She is the witch who taught me my magic and also, on the day of my birth, made everyone forget where it happened.
“What castle?” I asked, because I’d never seen one from where we liked to float just beyond the wide bay’s waters; also, I’d learned from our travels that the word castle, or something like it, is used to describe all manner of landish buildings.
Sjældent (squinting, as she always does to make things a little clearer through the white fog over her eyes) she explained what a castle is here: “A many-chambered place where people live with weapons and treasures. This one grows out of a big rock farthest to these islands’ west, and it’s the only one in the whole miserable place. Ye won’t be able not to find it, if ye follow the wind.”
“And my mother will be there?”
Sjældent cackled, one of those coughing laughs that she thinks are so unsettling to the rest of us—because they are. For her they’re as natural as a burp to a child just learning to hold her breath underwater. My father says that when one is finally as old and ugly as Sjældent, a laugh commands a kind of respect.
And fear. Most of our people fear the old witch, and for better reason than her laugh.
“Ye’ll find something,” she said to me that day. She rarely answers questions directly. “Ye’ll find the whole landish flok gathered in one place. A woman who can help ye. And something to bring back here. To me.”
It would be easy to become irritated with Sjældent, if I didn’t need her so much. I’ve grown used to her during the suns and moons of my apprenticeship. So I asked her then, “Will the something be my mother?” Who better to help me than the woman herself?
She cackled again, ending with words children use for taunting each other: “That, my girl, is for me to know and ye to find out.”
“I suppose I will find out,” I said, calm as could be, “and then we’ll both know, won’t we?”
She liked that. “Not so meek as when I found ye,” she said smugly.
I said, “I’m the one who came to you,” and then dived off the rock and deep under the seaskin, to show her that I might leave just as easily.
Arriving in the Dark Islands, as this place is called, took far more effort than a dive; it required nearly a year of training and chanting, trying and failing, breaking my pride over and over. And now that I’m here, my whole body stings and soars and throbs at once.
Excitement. Hope. Fear. Magic. So many questions perhaps to be answered … One big question, rather. And a single, secret name that Sjældent conjured for me to tuck in my heart, far (for now) from my lips.
I know the castle is close when I emerge from a place covered in so many trees that I know to call it forest. I smell fire, and sweetness, and meat cooking, and people massed together. When I leave the trees, there it is—a great pile of rocks rising from the sea at a place where the currents are strong and the waves beat a spray as high as I stand. A castle, in fact, so much a part of the rock that it seems to be the rock and is not easily seen from the sea.
So close, now, but how my feet ache! First there’s a bridge to cross over a freshwater channel, then a wide island shaped like a bowl with a well-trodden ridge down the center and plants growing in rows either side.
To keep steady, I count each step I manage without a stumble or a stubbed toe. One, two, five, and then I start counting again. It will take a while longer to learn, this walking over rocky earth.
The ridge is bounded on either side with a garden where plants grow in arithmetic patches and straight lines, which landish people find a useful way to organize nature and thus control their element, because they are anxious people who cannot accept that there’s no such condition as control. I sniff at the various rows and recognize some things I’ve tasted before, berries and small fruits for which we’ve traded with friendly peoples, but I’ve never seen them actually growing before. The wind blows their leaves the way the tide pushes and pulls at the weeds undersea, but both more gently and more fast.
On that wind, more and more, I catch the unmistakable odor of bodies together: landish bodies moist with landish sweat. And the sounds of landish voices, speaking and exclaiming, and at least a hundred pairs of jaws at work.
I also smell pleasure, which adds a sweetness to the cloud of their smells. It carries easily on the wind and it has a tangible substance, like a kind of web that might tangle me up.
I won’t let my step falter. I push myself, willfully, a last dozen paces over the green-bowl island and across a wooden bridge caked with mud, then finally—a big push—into the castle itself.
Cool. Stone. Crusty with salt from the sea. I can draw strength from that.
“Surely you can manage ten more steps,” I say out loud and sternly, for the benefit of my feet. They feel as if someone has smashed them with hammers and set them on fire, which is not too far from what they’ve endured today.
I limp under a series of archways, and then I see them: the landish folk. There are many more here than belong to my own clan and flok, and they are sitting on broken trees arranged within a big five-sided bowl of stone, with so many shining objects around them that my eyes are dazzled. I smell them fully, and hear them—all at once, overwhelming with sensation, as if smell and sound are tangible things (to us, they are) and can batter my body like waves.
“How are you going to bear them?” my age-mates asked when they heard of my plan. Especially Addra, who is flame-haired and dark-eyed and the most beautiful of all, forever admiring the reflection of her face and breasts in a rock pool—though she has the tongue of a dead clam, as Sjældent likes to say, and must rely on her beauty, not her singing, to win her way in the world.
Whenever the subject of my quest arose, Addra shuddered exquisitely, completely disdaining the people from whom, after all, we take much of what makes our lives feel so joyous.
“Their smell,” she said, and she counted landish flaws on her fingers, where the webbing was as delicate and pink as her nails: “Their awful, raspy voices and their breath that reeks of corpses—the taste—”
“She’s not going to taste them,” my loyal cousin La put in. “Are you, Sanna?”
Of course not. And—
“To be fair,” Pippa the Strong said once, to shut Addra up (Pippa is practically an elder by virtue of strength, and she finds Addra as irritating and unimportant as a sand flea), “you think that the landish reek of corpses because by the time you keep your promise to kiss them, they’ve died.”
And that is true, too. Addra’s face, if not her voice, has lured many a landish sailor to his death.
But in many other respects, Addra was speaking the truth. Landish breath, especially when so many are gathered together, does reek of the dead, and it’s enough to make my knees weak now, even as my mouth waters with a mix of hunger and revulsion. The landish flok has been feasting on landish animals, their earthy meat choked in smoke from a fire and stuffed with plants from the dirt, then drowned in sauces made from other things that grow in the ground. If only they ate a raw fish once in a while, they wouldn’t smell so bad ...
As I step toward them, I get another sensation, that which we call the Down-Below-Deep. I feel as if I’m moving below the sea’s striae of buoyancy, so far down it takes days first to swim and then to sink to the bottom. Anyone who reaches that place is held by the weight of water until it crushes her to death.
I am almost afraid enough to turn back; but I don’t. I am sworn to the quest. And anyway my poor, new feet can’t walk to the water again, and my grip on my magic is weak; I might not be able to change.
So I take a deep breath, and then the last few steps into sunshine and the edge of the crowd.
In the sunshine, on the walls, grow dazzling white landish flowers. They are one source (but not the only source) of that sweet aroma of pleasure. Above the people’s heads on the westernmost wall, in a nook where no flowers grow, stands a lady in a yellow gown and a veil to match, lips bumpy and red, face bumpy and bluish white. Not a real lady, I see very soon, but one of those figures that imitate the real. The landish like them for reasons we don’t quite understand; perhaps the false figures make them feel less alone. This one has arms
outstretched and is missing some fingers. Her flaking lips smile as if to welcome me home.
She makes me happy deep down, for reasons I can’t explain.
But happiness here is a danger.
Seeing her, I fall. In front of all those staring landish people, I tumble. Into the flowers that cling to the walls, into branches that tear at me. They rip my fine blue dress apart, right down to my tender new skin.
I feel blood leaking from me—tiny drops, little pearls—and I hear it hiss and sizzle in the air.
In the far northern reaches of medieval civilization, a mermaid leaves the sea to look for her land-dwelling mother among people as desperate for magic and miracles as they are for life and love.