The Last Mermaid

Shana Abe
2004, Fantasy Romance
Bantam, $6.50, 581 pages, Amazon ASIN 0553584979

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Warm

The Last Mermaid is a collection of three novellas about a family of sirens who inhabit a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Abé's writing is clear and fine, and her plotting can't be faulted, but, unfortunately, none of the stories truly pulled me in on an emotional level.

The first novella takes place in the 6th century and has a fairy tale flavor. Aeden, prince of Kelmere, and his troops are ambushed on their way to the castle. He is injured and thrown into the waters off the Isle of Kell. A dread fate - everyone knows that not even the best of sailors can reach that island without ramming themselves into its treacherous reef. However, Ione, the siren of Kell, sees Aeden and wants him. She carries him back to the shore, splints his leg, quells his pain, and determines that he will be the mate she has long wished for.

Aeden awakes and is immediately resolved to return to Kelmere. With his father, the king, dying, he is relied upon by his people. He feels a twinge at leaving Ione because she is beautiful and kind, but he knows his duty and is prepared to do it. He does not flinch at the long-ago curse that dooms anyone who attempts to leave to a grim death. Unfortunately for Aeden, he is physically unable to travel and his siren wants to keep him as her lover. And by the time he recovers enough to attempt the reef, he has fallen in love with her.

This would be my favorite of the three novellas except for two things: a sagging middle and a bit too much sex. While the story speeds up later and the plot twists in some unexpected ways that heighten the emotion of the piece, things drag where Aeden and Ione are getting to know each other on the island. Abé adeptly creates and maintains the suspense of her storyline, but the reader has to wade through some slower sections to get to the payoff.

It may seem a strange criticism of a romance novel (especially one rated "Warm") to say that it has too much sex. And, indeed, this story isn't one continuous love scene; there are only a few. But the fairy tale manner of story-telling makes the love scenes seem out of place. Think of reading Robin McKinley's Beauty with some added thrusting and groping, and you might understand what I'm trying to say. Love scenes would have been much better suited to the second and third novellas, but those stories aren't nearly as warm.

Finally for those readers who dislike romantic entanglements, Aeden has a big one with Morag, a woman who lives in the forest and follows the old ways. I did not find this bothersome in and of itself but how the characters react to Morag seems a bit contemporary and tacked on for a reason. Grade: B-

The second novella has some interesting twists. In this Georgian-era story the siren is a man, and the heroine is an assassin with paranormal ability. As a young girl, Leila was taken from her village by Che Rogelio, the man who would become her mentor in death. Che is known and feared throughout Europe as La Mano de Dios - the Hand of God. He kept Leila instead of ransoming her because she has a special ability. When she touches someone she can read his mind. It takes a lot out of her, though, in headaches and physical pain, so she uses her gift only sparingly.

Leila and Che are contracted to kill the Laird of Kell, Ronan MacMhuirich, but, as is her wont, Leila wants to touch him before so she can feel his evil and know she is not killing an innocent man. When her hand brushes his, she senses only the sea and nothing depraved. She begins to doubt their mission when she gets to know Ronan better and starts working against Che and their employer. Meanwhile Ronan knows someone is after his life and begins to put things together. The lovely doña is not what she seems.

This was my favorite novella of the three, though it also lagged in places. Since I don't like assassins, I expected that Leila wouldn't be my cup of tea. But her story is so tragic and her situation so complicated, I couldn't help but like her. Also, it was hard to mourn the people she was knocking off since they were truly evil. Che was an interesting secondary character whose menace becomes more and more apparent, ratcheting up the tension in the story. Ronan wasn't as clearly drawn, but as in the first story, his mermaid nature is well explored. It was interesting to see how his paranormality affected his relationships with humans and especially with his clan. His protectiveness of Leila was touching too. Grade: B-

The third novella takes place in modern day and is the shortest of the three. Ruriko Kell is still reeling from the sudden and unexpected deaths of her parents. She has little money, and her job as a telephone psychic pays the bills, but that's about it. She has trouble sleeping, rarely eats, and feels strangely "itchy." Nothing is quite right. She also has regular nightmares that she is drowning. Then out of the blue she receives a silver locket, a phone call from a stranger and the news that she has inherited an island in Scotland. Her father was a thin twig on a thin, dying, far off family tree, and apparently Ruri is the last leaf.

Ruriko decides to sell the island, but then she gets a visit from the intriguing Iain MacInnes, self-made man and the new owner of Kelmere. Iain knows there is more to Ruri than she realizes. He recognizes her immediately as siren. But she is afraid of the water and unwilling to come to Scotland. So he makes her visit a condition of the sale. And when Ruri arrives in Scotland, there are many surprises waiting for her.

This was definitely the weakest novella, both in romance and characterization. The reader learns very little about Ruri and Iain except what is necessary to know in terms of the siren legend. Their romance is brief and unconvincing, and not enough emphasis was put on the moment of Ruri's epiphany. Interspersed with this novella is more of the story of the Siren of the Curse, and by the end of the story it become clear just why Abé included this detail. That twist happens to be one of my least favorites in romance. Grade: C

I think the three part connectedness of The Last Mermaid was supposed to make the impact of the book as a whole that much stronger. After all, it starts with the tragic story of a long ago siren and the curse she places on her descendents. The individual novellas play out the particulars of the curse until it is lifted from the descendents of Kell forevermore. Unfortunately, none of the stories truly grabbed and held my attention, and 581 pages of partial interest add up to a borderline reading experience. I have read Abé before, however, and had a similar experience. Both A Kiss at Midnight and The Secret Swan started strong for me (and earned DIK status from AAR colleauges), but petered out. So if you love Abé or mermaid tales, I wouldn't hesitate to pick this one up and at least look it over in the bookstore. Abé's has a lovely prose voice, and The Last Mermaid might satisfy you more than it did me.

-- Rachel Potter

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