I absolutely adored Sonia Faruqi’s The Oyster Thief! From the description at the Penguin Random House Canada’s fall preview (my livetweet: “Ecological & whimsical fantasy about a mermaid & a human man & ocean conservation”), I was expecting The Little Mermaid but with adult characters and a bit of an environmental message. The Oyster Thief turned out to be so much more than I expected, and I cannot recommend this book enough. The world building is beautiful, the story is compelling, and the cover is simply stunning.
The Oyster Thief is about Coralline, a shy mermaid apprentice doctor (they’re called something else in mermaid world, but basically, she’s a healer) who embarks on a quest for a mythical elixir to save her little brother’s life. Her brother is dying because of an oil spill (what mermaids call “black poison”) from a human corporation Ocean Dominion (who is as evil as its name suggests). This isn’t the first time Ocean Dominion has messed with Coralline’s world — her father, a coral scientist, also lost his hand because of a human explosive — so Coralline has good reason to distrust the human world.
At Ocean Dominion is Izar, a human engineer who is tasked with creating “underwater fire” so that Ocean Dominion can mine for jewels at the bottom of the ocean. Izar was raised to believe that merpeople killed his parents, so he has no compunction about destroying their home. At least until he is kidnapped, drowned, then mysteriously transforms into a merman and meets Coralline. Izar hopes the mythical elixir will help him regain his legs, and so joins Coralline on her quest.
There is a romance, but it’s much less prominent than I expected, and while I was looking forward to a lush underwater fantasy romance, I actually wasn’t too disappointed this time. Because the environmental aspect was much stronger than I expected. There’s also a lot of science nerdiness in the story, which I absolutely adored — random things like how seahorses like Coralline’s father’s best friend swim sideways rather than forward, and how it’s male seahorses who become pregnant (the seahorse joins Coralline on her quest, so his pregnancy adds some urgency to getting back home safely). And if you google the term “oyster thief”, you’ll learn it’s a beautiful botanical symbol for freedom and free-spiritedness. (Faruqi describes it beautifully near the end of the book, but really, this book just makes me want to learn all sorts of stuff about ocean life.) And there’s also a lot of important commentary about things like discrimination, racism, corporate greed and most importantly, humanity’s role in destroying our natural world and our corresponding responsibility to do something about it.
I also love the character of Coralline. She really grows within this story, and I love that she doesn’t have any super magical abilities, but rather needs to learn to trust in her own skill and professional instincts as a healer. She learns her trade much like us regular humans do, and it’s ultimately her intelligence that gets her through. Izar is also a fantastically developed character — I love his character arc as he learns about his past and confronts his long-held prejudices.
That being said, the other characters often felt a bit two-dimensional. In particular, for all the woman power awesomeness for Coralline, the villainous women felt a bit stereotypical “mean girls”, like the beautiful mermaid trying to steal Coralline’s boyfriend, the snobby mother of Coralline’s boyfriend, and Coralline’s own mother who’s a bit like Elizabeth Bennet’s mother but more scheming.
There are also times when I wish the author had delved a bit more into the nuances and complexities of emotions characters experience and the challenges they face. For example, a major climactic sequence as Coralline and Izar enter the dark depths of the ocean felt like it was resolved really quickly. The story also felt a bit young at times, possibly due to the cutesy character names (though, as they’re based on marine science stuff, they do make sense).
Still, and most importantly, I couldn’t put this book down. Faruqi is a gifted storyteller, and I was absolutely captivated by this story and by the world she’s created. I love the way she weaves in real-life issues like oil spills and underwater mining within such a rich and imaginative fantasy adventure, and I want more, please. The ending sets up the potential for a sequel and I’ll definitely be checking that out.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.