The Ocean Herself saves Kahlen from drowning in a shipwreck and promises her a century free of aging and disease. All Kahlen has to do is join her sister Sirens in singing humans and ships to a watery grave when the Ocean’s hunger becomes overwhelming. With twenty years left to her service and a memory wipe at the end, it’s a terrible time for Kahlen to fall in love with a human. If you’re interested in a dark but honest fantasy which treats death with respect, and you don’t mind a slightly superficial romance in exchange for a more developed narrator heroine, this may be the book for you.
I felt I got to know Kahlen much better than I typically know first-person YA narrators – not in a way that I can prove by listing personality trait adjectives, but just in the sense that I understood her and her dilemma. Akinli makes her feel human, not monstrous. She loves that with him, she can be an ordinary (if silent) young woman who bakes cakes with him, sits on a college quad, and goes for a drive in his small hometown instead of a supernatural creature who lures people to their deaths with her voice. They don’t spend a lot of time together, but I certainly believed in Kahlen’s love for Akinli.
His perspective, as often happens in a first-person novel, is less clear, since he doesn’t get to narrate. On the whole, Akinli is rather flat, but it was nice to see “kind, supportive, communicative partner of tormented immortal” flipped to the male. I was disappointed that the author went so far as to name a character Akinli and then made him a blonde white guy. It smacked of all of those sheikhs with English mothers. There is some diversity among Kahlen’s fellow sirens, although the Indian victim of family violence felt like a stereotype.
There is so much violence and death in YA fantasy today, and I was grateful that a book with a heroine who amounts to a mass murderer did not neglect the victims. We learn about them as individuals, and we see Kahlen caring about them, too, as she grapples with the consequences of her singing. (I liked that her fellow Sirens all handle it differently, including one who refused to sing and was drowned). Some scenes, like the sinking of a wedding cruise, hit me right in the gut. However, because the author didn’t skimp on the tragedy of death, it was all the more necessary for her to be clear about why exactly the Ocean needs to be fed. We are given vague explanations that the victims, by feeding the Ocean, keep her alive to serve humanity, but I never understood what that meant. We understand ocean currents reasonably well; what does Ocean, the character, do for humanity that justifies, as the Siren song goes, “trading a thousand lives for one?” What would happen if the Sirens refused to kill anyone? I could tell that the characters all believed the deaths were necessary, but the author didn’t win me over. That left me with a huge issue in forgiving the heroine and enjoying the book.
I also wish that the author had given a different explanation for the mysterious illness that strikes Kahlen and Akinli. She dropped a clue about Roman legends describing Sirens as lacking souls, which they can only retain by marrying a mortal. It was so perfect for them both to be ill because, in the absence of marriage, Akinli’s soul was trying to fill both bodies, that I was stunned that she chose an alternate explanation – one which came out of nowhere and honestly made little sense. Still, it’s better than the classic “overthrow the entire social order” plot.
The Siren is dark, sad, interesting, and honest, with a thoughtful heroine. It’s worth a read.