Young Adult Author Tiana Warner: Her Evenings are Spent Writing about Killer Mermaids
Trends come and go in YA fiction: vampires, modern dystopias, faeries. The spotlight began shining on mermaid YA in 2012. Most of these stories featured sirens killing men, underwater political backstabbing, or vengeful mermaid spirits. The bestselling Waterfire Saga, for example, is about merpeople politics and apocalypse prevention. More recently, Tiana Warner released the two—and soon three Mermaids of Eriana Kwai series. She combines classic mermaid elements with more original content to create a unique, satisfying tale.
Warner’s sparse prose and unique plot sets Mermaids of Eriana Kwai apart. In the first novel, Ice Massacre, mermaids ravage the tiny, Pacific island of Eriana Kwai. The creatures eat anyone near the water, destroy fishing stocks, and cut off ties to the mainland, sinking Eriana Kwai into a depression. One of the island girls, Meela, is drafted into the island’s annual mermaid-killing journey on the high seas. During the hunt, she must manage mutinies and friends’ deaths while hiding her budding feelings for a childhood mermaid friend, Lysi. By the second book, Ice Crypt, Meela learns of the merman king behind the attacks. To stop him, Meela must find an ancient weapon on the island and double-cross him with it. Meanwhile, Lysi teams up with a band of army deserters to try and kill the king and, unknowingly to her buddies, get back to Meela.
Warner puts the action-packed plot first while leaving room for character development. The first novel’s battle scenes aboard the mermaid-hunting ship perfectly balance action and emotion, managing to advance the storyline without feeling forced. Warner’s mermaids attack, as terrifying sea demons, but turn their upper bodies into humans upon death, adding an extra emotional layer to the battles. In the second novel, we learn that these merpeople need to periodically breathe air, which adds another dimension to Lysi the mermaid’s underwater fights.
Warner, who lives in in the province of British Columbia, Canada, incorporates Pacific Northwestern mythology into her fictional island’s creation myths, although the series is set in the 21st century (except that the warriors use crossbows instead of guns), creating a unique atmosphere. Meela’s island home feels quite different from the standard, European-based swords-and-sandals fantasy world. The whole place feels unbelievably isolated, however. Warner could have added reactions from nearby Canadians or Americans whose shores are also ravaged by mermaids, although the islanders do make reference to these other countries.
Meela grows throughout the books, eventually reconciling her idealistic need to end the mermaid war with her more pragmatic half that seeks self-preservation and revenge for her missing brother. Lysi evolves less as a character, but her optimistic and playful nature contrasts well with Meela’s somber demeanor. As for tertiary characters, the second novel develops those who were cast aside in the first book. None of Lysi and Meela’s friends are quite as dynamic as the main characters, but they don’t really need to be. It’s enough for them to be loyal, colorful compatriots.
Notably, both main characters defy the “chosen one” YA trope. In the first novel, Meela is a mere soldier whose only plans are survival and keeping Lysi a secret. Her growing ability to stop the merman king is largely due to Meela’s coincidental relationship with a mermaid, not the result of a revolutionary prophecy or legendary status. Warner also makes it clear that Lysi is just one of many merpeople trying to kill the king. She has no “chosen one” status, either. It is refreshing to see the absence of this trope in a genre that uses it in everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games.
Speaking of bestselling fantasy and dystopian novels, some critics suggest that mermaid books rarely achieve comparable levels of dazzling fame because they appeal only to girls. People consider “boy-friendly” books to be universally appealing while restricting “girly” books to, well, girls, even if books can sell like hotcakes to a largely female audience. Operating under the oft-quoted assumption that boys prefer fiction that’s plot-heavy, shorter, and action-packed, Warner’s trilogy should appeal to boys. In addition, numerous articles show that boys enjoy consuming media with female protagonists.
However, the same-sex, interspecies, interracial romance will guarantee a niche audience regardless of how much the trilogy’s fan base expands beyond it. Meela and Lysi’s relationship is a welcome addition to the still-growing collection of LGBT fantasy/sci-fi. And, Warner is helping YA move away from having the coming out story be the primary narrative of every queer teenager. There are small, touching coming-out moments in the story, but Warner’s primary focus is on the action plots. The merpeople are open-minded--they don’t shun or threaten Lysi for liking a girl, and Meela hides their relationship only because of Lysi’s species, not her sex. However, it takes Meela (and others) a long while to figure out her feelings for Lysi, suggesting lingering heteronormativity.
For all of the focus on this central romance, the actual relationship is somehow lacking. The first book delightfully catalogues the two girls’ childhood friendship and Meela’s growing feelings as a teen, but since the other islanders all kill mermaids on sight, there aren’t ample chances for the casual interactions to build a relationship. The second book develops both characters well, but there are no scenes during which Meela and Lysi interact until the very end.
Luckily, the final novel promises to feature the pair working side-by-side to take down the mermaid king, so that should flesh out their relationship enough for it to become fully worthy of the action-packed main plot. It would also be good to see more of Meela’s loyal friends on Eriana Kwai, but only time will tell. The final novel, Ice Kingdom, releases in 2018. If it’s anything like the first two instalments, Tiana Warner, who says on her site that she spends her evenings writing about killer mermaids, will have created a truly exceptional YA trilogy.
Cover photo Mehgan Heaney-Grier