where the sky meets the sea coverRating: 3.5 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Eron Marcel is a sky diver who works on an airship crew hunting whalls, giant sea animals that are prized for their oil and hide. It’s a dangerous job, but Eron is good at it and likes the adventure. One day, however, a hunt goes horribly wrong and Eron ends up in the cold, dark water and nearly killed. However, he awakens to find that he has been rescued by a mysterious creature that appears to be a cross between a man and a fish, with a mostly human upper body and a long tail.

At first, Eron’s only real thought is survival. He is in a grotto in the middle of the ocean, far from land and with limited supplies. His crew is unlikely to even know he is alive, let alone where he is. The strange creature, which Eron names Ket after some of the vocalizations it makes, seems to want to help, offering Eron supplies it has collected in the grotto and even finding fresh water for him. Ket is friendly and seems quite interested in Eron and what he is doing. The two begin to grow close, so much so that as much as Eron knows he needs to leave the grotto to find long-term safety, he is hesitant to lose Ket from his life.

When Eron manages to find a way to leave the grotto, he is thrilled that Ket seems to want to come along. He even gets to meet more of the creatures like Ket, which he discovers are called “mer,” and learn more about them and their important connection to the whalls. Eron is horrified as he starts to become more aware of the important role the whalls have in the sea, knowing how many he has killed, and he is determined to forge a new path. But the whalls mean big money and there are many whose greed runs rampant. Eron had hoped to make a difference in the lives of both the mer and the whalls, but when he finds both his and Ket’s lives on the line, it will take all he has, plus a little help, to find a way to save their lives and protect the sea from harm.

Where the Sky Meets the Sea combines a bit of steampunk with a merfolk fantasy, plus a nice message on the dangers of greed and the importance of protecting the sea. The first portion of the story focuses on introducing us to the airships and whall hunts, and then the few days that Eron is with Ket in the grotto. Barrie sets up the story well, giving us a nice overview of Eron’s job and the whalling industry. We then see Eron in the aftermath of the accident, as he needs to find a way to survive and get back to land, as well spending a few days getting to know Ket. Then the story shifts gears somewhat. First, Eron learns more about the mer and their connection to the whalls and he gains a new awareness about the importance of their symbiotic relationship. There is a nice balance here of opening Eron up to this new idea and seeing him have a change of heart about whalling, while not being too heavy handed with the messaging. We then see Eron in a place of presumed safety, only to learn there is more danger afoot than he expected. I think the basic storyline works well and it gives us some nice moments with Ket and Eron alone, as well as bringing in some excitement at the end.

While the structure works well and I generally enjoyed Barrie’s writing style, I did struggle with some of the aspects of the story. To be clear, this is not a shifter story. Ket has only a mer form of a generally humanoid upper body, with the addition of expressive ear fins, conical teeth, and webbed hands, and a traditional merfolk-style big tail. He doesn’t speak a human language, and the men mostly use hand gestures and guesswork to understand each other. Until Eron finds an old sailor’s journal among Ket’s things that refers to Ket’s kind as “mer,” Eron mostly thinks of Ket as sort of a “fish-man.” Now, Eron does note that he thinks of Ket as more human than animal, but things definitely learn more toward the animal side than most mer-themed romances, particularly early on.

I did have trouble connecting with Ket and Eron as a couple, especially in the early days. It is only a day or so before they are having sex and I didn’t really feel the emotional bond the story says they were supposed to have built at this point. I found the sex just super awkward and uncomfortable, to be honest, and I’m not totally sure I can put my finger on why. I have read and enjoyed plenty of non-traditional sex (tentacles, robots, monsters), but this just didn’t work for me. In part, it’s the fact that Ket feels very much not human. Aside from the quasi-bestiality feeling I got, it is also unclear how much Ket understands about sex (or anything else that’s happening), since get no sense of his culture or the complexity of his thoughts. These guys can barely communicate, so it is hard to see how this bond is building between them, especially after such a short time. All of this is compounded by the fact that we are solely in Eron’s POV, so as readers, we have no sense of what Ket is really thinking or feeling, only Eron’s interpretation. We learn almost nothing about Ket as an individual and little about the mer aside from the fact that they have a close relationship with the whalls. So that served to create even more distance than I was already feeling. Over time, this feeling of disconnect lessened for me, but I just never settled into their relationship dynamic fully.

I think the world building also needed more development to fully carry this story. I am assuming this is historical, given that steampunk books typically have a historical bent, but there is very little sense of time period and virtually none of place. I am not even sure if this supposed to take place in an alternate version of our world or one that is totally fictional. The cover and blurb refer to this as a steampunk romance, but it feels like one only in the most basic sense. We have airships and there are some mentions of steam power, but that is really it. The steampunk element plays virtually no role in the story and if you made the whalling airships into regular boats, the steampunk bit could have been left out of the book entirely with almost nothing changing. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, it just felt like there was no reason to even have steampunk elements if they weren’t going to be really used. Also, and I realize this doesn’t matter that much, but why are they “whalls” and not “whales?” I mean, maybe they aren’t actually supposed to be whales and I’m confused? But they are massive sea animals with blowholes to expel water that are hunted for their hides and oil. If they aren’t supposed to be essentially whales, why give them such similar names and a near identical description? Especially when the other sea animals are all called by names we commonly use, like squid or fish.

Last thing, and this was another one that I knew I probably should just go with but couldn’t move past for some reason, and that is the language issue. Ket speaks exclusively in clicking sounds, while Eron speaks English. Within a day or two, Eron starts to be able to understand some of Ket’s basic body language, like the way his ear fins move indicate yes or no. Which, okay, I can accept that. But what I couldn’t get with is the idea that Ket understands virtually everything Eron says after only a few days. And I don’t mean basic words here and there; I’m talking about complex thoughts and sentences, like analyzing the state of their relationship. There is no indication that Ket has had any interaction with humans and learned their language somehow, particularly as at first he doesn’t seem to understand Eron at all. The implication is definitely that he is learning from their interactions, not that he came in already understanding English. So every time they would have these long conversations where Ket is somehow understanding everything Eron says, it just pulled me out of the story. At the same time, FWIW, Eron learns virtually none of Ket’s language, either to understand or speak, so it is definitely one-sided. Also, since we are in exclusively Eron’s POV and Ket doesn’t speak a language Eron (or we) understand, we get to know next to nothing about Ket’s internal thoughts or any real background about him other than what Eron can observe.

Overall, I generally enjoyed Barrie’s writing style and liked the bones of this story. I also liked the set up and how we see Ket and Eron together as a couple and then off facing the conflict together. There is a nice message here about the whalls and a good sense of connection between Eron and his crew and allies. I just struggled with how removed I felt from their relationship and how little we get to know Ket, and I never really settled into their dynamic.

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