This is both a review of Den Valdron’s book The Mermaid’s Tale and a reflection of sorts. Because The Mermaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking book. I mean that literally—it has provoked many thoughts. But before I get into those thoughts, a few disclosures. I share a publisher with Den, Five River’s Publishing, and I’m a tiny bit acquainted with him, virtually at least. We’re both members of SF Canada, Canada’s National Association of SF professionals. And editor Robert Runte edited both our books when he was Senior Editor of Five Rivers. I don’t believe any of those factors has influenced my opinion of The Mermaid’s Tale.
I’ve been curious about this book for a while because there is some buzz about it. People are talking about it, writing about it. I first heard about it the weekend Robert Runte signed me to Five Rivers. He didn’t mention the name of the book, but during our conversations that weekend he mentioned that he’d signed another book that he was quite excited about, that he thought was challenging, and now I’m fairly certain that he was talking about The Mermaid’s Tale.
After The Mermaid’s Tale came out, I read comments by others that suggested this book was a cut above. On Goodreads and in emails. On the SF Canada Listserve over the years I’ve read emails by Den in which he has proven himself to be eminently readable. When Den writes an email on a list-serve you generally read it. He’s thoughtful and considered. Smart. Reflective. Only natural to expect those qualities in a book written by him. So I went into this book with high hopes. I wanted to like it. I wasn’t disappointed.
I have many writer friends. Some are professional, at the top of their game, successful. Others struggling, or just starting out. I have bought books from many of these folks over the years. Some of the books are good, some not my cup of tea. If I don’t like a book, I won’t finish it and I won’t review it. If I like it, I’ll finish it. Usually, I’ll rate it on Goodreads. Sometimes I’ll write a review as well. If I know the writer, I try not to give a book less than a four or five star review. This is because I know how hard it is to write and sell books, and I know that a three star review won’t help sell books. If you’re reading this and thinking, wait, I gave one of Joe’s books a three star rating, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. I want you to be honest. I’m just explaining how I operate, not how you should operate.
Sometimes when I give a book a five star rating it’s not because I think it’s the best book ever written. Sometimes I’m employing other criteria. Maybe I think it’s a five star book for that author, or there’s some other quality about the book that elevates it to five star status. You may not agree with this approach. I don’t care—it’s my approach, refined over time. Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that in this case I’m giving The Mermaid’s Tale five stars because I think it actually deserves five stars. I think it’s a five star book.
A confession based on a fragment of memory. Years ago, when I was working in a certain capacity for CBC Radio, somebody sent me some chapbooks. I think they were about zombies, and I think it was Den who sent them. I might be misremembering. I got sent a lot of books at that time because of the projects and shows I was involved with. I didn’t have time to read all the books I was sent. The CBC gets sent a lot of stuff. When I worked on the show Q we had a table that we called “The Table of Shit.” It wasn’t all shit. It was just stuff we got sent that we set out so that people could pick through it. Eventually a lot of this stuff winds up lining the shelves along the atrium. I hung onto the chapbooks for a while, then, like much of the rest of what I was sent, they made their way to those shelves. I never read the chapbooks. They were snatched up pretty quickly by someone else. I hope they found a good home. Now I wish I’d read them, because if they were in fact from Den, I’m pretty sure they were worth reading.
Even if they weren’t from Den they’re worth mentioning because like I said, if I recall correctly, they were about zombies. The Mermaid’s Tale has nothing to do with zombies, but it’s all part of the same continuum. The Mermaid’s Tale is about orcs and dwarves and goblins and hobgoblins and vampires and giants and trolls. Now, I love science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not generally a snob, but even I, when confronted by books and chapbooks about zombies and the like, become instantly suspicious. I suspect that what is before me is probably not very good. It’s probably poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly edited, shallow. In other words, I’m prejudiced against the subject matter. Whoever wrote those chapbooks about zombies produced them before zombies hit the mainstream. I saw zombies and pretty much dismissed them. A few years later, Walking Dead hit comic book stores and the airwaves and zombies became huge. Mainstream. I saw that stories about zombies could be compelling. Yeah—I wish I still had those chapbooks.
Now here we are with mermaids, orcs, trolls etc. I already knew this wasn’t going to be your usual mermaid, orc, troll story because it’s Den and because of the buzz around the book. This book contains these sorts of fantasy/horror cliché characters, and that might make it sound juvenile, but I assure you it’s not. One of the many strengths of the book is the spin it puts on all of that. These aren’t the mermaids, orcs and trolls we grew up with. They serve a purpose. They have much more depth. We feel for them. Boy do we feel for them.
The book is from a small independent publisher. Like I said earlier, it’s one that I share with Den. A publisher like this can’t afford to publicize its books the way a large publisher can. It’s print-on-demand so individual print copies are a bit more expensive than we’re used to. (I actually bought this book twice: first the inexpensive e-book version, then, because I realized I don’t like reading e-books, the print version. I’m glad I did. The print copy looks and feels great and was a pleasure to read.) Some people might be inclined to look down their noses at independent publishers. I have had people in the industry smile indulgently, somewhat patronizingly when I told them I was published by one. But thank God for the existence of such a publisher, because they find and publish quality books like The Mermaid’s Tale. Look up Five Rivers back catalogue. They have published many fine books by many fine authors. And they must be doing something right because they continue to do so.
You might be asking yourself: who is Den Valdron? This is a bit of a problem for Den and authors like him. When you’re not a name author, few are going out of their way to find books by you. So who is Den? He’s an aboriginal rights lawyer originally from the Maritimes in Canada. A man who’d probably rather spend most of his time writing but can’t because you can’t make a living writing these days, with rare exceptions. So he can’t pump out as much material as required to make an impression. He could be a Stephen King but he’s not as prolific and hasn’t pulled off a Carrie yet. But he might—just give him time.
Den won’t break out with this book, I expect. It’s special, all right, but it’s got a jaw-dropping act of violence near the beginning that I suspect some people won’t be able to get past. I can imagine it would be pretty triggering for some. It reminded me of a scene in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books, Lord Foul’s Bane, that I first read when I was about seventeen, and that almost made me stop reading that book, I was so outraged. The scene in Den’s book did not make me stop reading it, but I wondered about it. I wanted to understand its place in the book. It’s not random, it’s not gratuitous, it’s ugly and horrible. It’s integral to the plot, to the characters, to the theme. It would not be the same book without it. It’s referenced later in the book. It speaks directly to the characters’ pain. It’s tragic and awful and something that happens in the real world and therefore merits inclusion. How do we deal with such violence if we simply bury it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and don’t talk about it in our art?
The Mermaid’s Tale deals directly with such violence. This is a story about characters who live in a violent world. It’s a story about the impact of that violence on them. It’s a story about characters who must live with the knowledge that they are reviled by everyone around them. Everyone, even themselves. It’s a story about the corrosive impact of that terrible knowledge upon them. But this isn’t just fantasy; all of that violence and hatred exists in our own world too. This is a reflection of that, and forces us to reflect upon that fact.
I should probably also mention that it’s a murder mystery, but, although important and well executed, and it’s the mystery that provides the scaffolding, that aspect is almost incidental. It’s the story, but not what the story’s actually about. The Mermaid’s Tale is greater than the sum of its parts.
We live in a world saturated with art and entertainment. It’s a golden age for television. A century’s worth of films to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of books published every single year. Much of this art and entertainment is very good, some of it sublime, created by gifted people know what they’re doing. We can’t possibly sample even a fraction of it. Like the unnamed protagonist in The Mermaid’s Tale who doesn’t stand much of a chance in her world, a violent book about an orc by an unknown author from a small publisher may not stand much a chance in this world.
And that’s a shame, because a book of this calibre deserves to be much more widely read.