Review: The Surface Breaks

Review: The Surface Breaks

Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)

Beneath the sea, Muirgen patiently counts down the days to her fifteenth birthday where she can finally see the world above hers, but only for a quick moment as her controlling father urges her to keep her head down below. On what should be her first and only visit, she is drawn to a human boy and decides that she too wants to be a part of his world. But doing so risks her place in the sea, but this little mermaid will do anything to find her place.

The Surface Breaks is an O’Neill novel for a YA audience, and she has done a brilliant job with it. Often described as a “feminist retelling” of The Little Mermaid, and it definitely does fit the description. Muirgen and her sisters live under the controlling thumb of their father, the Sea King. Angered by the loss of their mother years ago, his controlling behaviour and treatment of his daughters as mere property has them competing for his attention.

When Muirgen is enthralled by the human world, she finds herself asking for the help of the Sea Witch, an enigma of a character, a guardian of the Rusalkas — underwater creatures who were once human women that were abused. The merfolk despised them for their unruly behaviour but the Sea Witch assures they are but themselves which highlight a key theme to the novel: women who reclaimed what had been taken from them and unapologetically raise their voices when they’ve been told to stay quiet.

If I had to think of any flaw, it would be the depiction of the world and setting. I didn’t really find myself falling for the merfolk’s kingdom and the human world too felt underdeveloped. But the effect is minuscule and doesn’t affect my overall opinion of the book. The strength of the book is in the characters and journey of Muirgen.

Overall, The Surface Breaks is an interesting retelling of The Little Mermaid O’Neill has used the original tale brilliantly and adding her own flair and originality. I especially loved the added backstory to their mother. If you’re looking for a fairy tale with a touch of darkness and empowerment, this one is definitely for you.


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Review: The Silence of the Girls

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.

As the ancient city of Troy continues to withstand the brutal siege of the Greek army, its surrounding areas slowly find themselves torn to pieces by Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles. Having watched her city ransacked, her family murdered, Briseis finds herself deep within the Greek army, a battle prize, forced to adjust to her new lifestyle. Far from home, Briseis brings to life a story often untold: the life of a woman living in war.

One of the beauties of The Iliad is the sheer depth and detail that comes to life in the story, making it open to so many interpretations and retellings — giving characters you might not have given a second glance, a space to thrive and make their story told. And The Silence of the Girls is one to add to your list. What made this book unique that despite how quiet it felt reading it, it certainly packed a hefty punch. Barker does not give up in the detail: violent, brutal and devastating. We follow Briseis from the moment Achilles takes her away to the days after his own demise. She understands how little her life means in the hands of men who think they’re above her.

The conflict, climax, and resolution of the Trojan War is not a surprise to most readers, so I really enjoyed witnessing the day to day life of Briseis and what she could’ve been expected to do around an enemy camp. Memorable names – Agamemnon, Priam, Hector, and Patroclus, etc. etc – all make an appearance one way or another, and we get to see them through different eyes. I was rather interested in the actions of Achilles when he’s not being a hero. He is in no way a hero to Briseis, and we get to witness that. For most of the novel, Briseis is our first-person narrator, but towards the finale, the narrative brings in Achilles, and he was a fascinating figure of brutality and equally compelling to follow. 

The book’s pacing was rather slow, but for me, that worked in its favour. I enjoyed that I wasn’t barrelling through the novel at the speed of light, and I was consistently engaged throughout the entire reading experience. However, I have to note that despite the title and its emphasis on the voices that were left untold, the story doesn’t really highlight much of its own women apart from Briseis and Helen. I would even say the men were given more depth than some of the captured women. I guess you could say that’s a product of the original text that ignored them in the first place. 

Overall, a brilliant imagining of the untold experience of Briseis. A fascinating take on the myth of Achilles and the Trojan war told by a woman that time could’ve forgotten. Barker makes a stand in this detailed standalone that can satisfy any mythology enthusiast. 


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