Berrisford, Kay. The Merman and the Barbarian Pirate. Less Than Three Press, July 2014.
I admit it; I picked up this book because I thought the title was hilarious (still do, for what it’s worth). I was expecting a cheesy, but hopefully very hot, bodice-ripper of story, possibly with some interesting human/merman naughtiness.
And I was wrong, brilliantly wrong.
Kay Berrisford’s novel is a fabulous combination of coming of age, romance, and adventure. Raef is an innocent young merman, raised by a single mother on fairy tale love stories, stories where lords are good, pirates are bad, and lovers live happily ever after. Forced to leave his mer tribe when love is outlawed and arranged marriage required, the romantic-minded Raef seeks out the coast of England, searching for the human lord to be his perfect love. When he spots the handsome young Lord Haverford on the beach one night, Raef is sure he’s met the man who will make his dreams come true. But his plans to show himself to his would-be lord are disrupted by an attack by the feared pirate Jon Kemp, who not only ruins Raef’s intended rendezvous but forces him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about lords and about pirates.
Jon Kemp, on the other hand, is bored and jaded, a successful pirate who has lost interest in treasure and instead has become a kind of Robin Hood, using his skills at banditry to help the weak gain justice against the strong. A love-em and leave-em type, uninterested in commitment despite his fondness for love poetry, Kemp has no desire for a relationship, certainly not one with an innocent and mysterious young man who might stand in the way of his current quest for justice against Lord Haverford.
Berrisford takes her time, and that slow build-up gives Raef the chance to grow up and the reader the time to care about his happiness. Raef starts out as an almost annoyingly innocent young man, the male version of the princess in the tower who has never experienced life other than through books and stories, desperate to find someone who will give his life meaning and completeness. But the as story builds and Raef begins to develop his own sense of personhood, to build relationships with people rather than fantasies, and to stand up for himself against those who would control him, he becomes his own champion, and in that he is able to become a champion for others as well.
And Berrisford does not sacrifice her story for erotic fan service. Instead, romance and adventure share the center stage, and Raef’s relationship with Kemp develops slowly rather than merely exploding in instant sexual contact. Little details give the story both unexpected depth as well as a sense of realism. Raef’s confusion when faced with the realities of being human – clothes, whiskey, even sexual arousal – perfectly captures the oddness of trying to be something you’re not, and Kemp’s wonder at his lover’s mer form seems natural for a man who has spent his life at sea and long heard legends and stories of the sea folk. With an interesting supporting cast, a well-drawn villain, and some excellent swashbuckling adventure mixed with delicious eroticism, The Merman and the Barbarian Pirate is a delightful read, perfect for beach or poolside. For readers who prefer plot to porn in their romance, this sea story is an unexpected pearl.
ARC received from NetGalley.