Drown by Esther Dalseno: Book Review

Drown

Title: Drown: A Twisted Take on a Classic Fairy Tale

Author: Esther Dalseno

Publisher: Three Little Birds Books

My Rating: 5/5 stars

“Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.”

And with that quote right there, I knew I had stumbled upon something special. I found Drown in my Goodreads recommendations and although it normally takes a trusted reviewer for me to pick up a book, I decided to take a chance on this one. And, oh boy, am I glad I did. Somehow it only has a hundred or so reviews on Goodreads, and that really needs to change. So here I am.

Drown is a dark re-telling of The Little Mermaid, but not the Disney version. No, you won’t find any talking flounder or composing crabs here.

The Disney movie deviates quite a lot from Hans Christian Andersen’s original story, with the only real similarities being the main plot of a mermaid falling in love with the human world and its prince and consequently surrendering both her voice and tail to join them. If you’ve read the original, you’ll know that there is a lot more to it than that. The original is, in fact, already a tad bit darker and not as light-hearted with its bittersweet conclusion and underlying messages concerning religion.

Drown challenges everything we thought we ever knew about mermaids. Here, they aren’t sweet, gentle souls who love singing and brushing their hair. Instead, they are emotionless, eerie creatures with a cruel fixation on beauty. Their society literally operates through it:

“Thus the little mermaid learned her world’s greatest paradox: that their currency was beauty, and their coin was body parts.”

Our charming protagonist, the little mermaid, is the youngest of all eight mermaid princesses. Everything about the eighth princess is different. Unlike her sisters and fellow merfolk, she has a natural curiosity and questions everything–nothing can be taken at face value for her. She draws her own conclusions and forms her own opinions–opinions that tend to oppose the rest of the mermaid population’s collective opinion. Naturally, she perplexes everyone around her. They don’t understand her strange thoughts or the foreign emotions she experiences; in fact, she almost seems… human.

When she comes of age, it is time for her to surface as a rite of passage. Straightaway, she finds the human world fascinating–especially its prince and the beautiful music he creates. Quickly becoming obsessed and engrossed with it all, she decides she must join them and seeks out the dreaded sea witch who can make her dream come true. In exchange for her voice and the stipulation that with every step she takes will follow excruciating pain, she gets her wish. (Sounds like a pretty rotten deal to me.)

From there on, we follow and learn through her eyes:

“Everybody made faces around here. Human beings, she discovered, could not maintain the stony, frozen expressions of the merfolk, not for an instant. There was not a moment where their faces remained blank. There was always a light in their eye, and the light, like red wind, would flare into a raging fire without notice.”

Keeping most of the elements that the Disney movie abandoned, while also providing her own unique twists, Dalseno’s Drown is a much more faithful and developed adaptation. The history on how the mermaids came to be is compelling and well thought-out. Like any solid foundation for a story, it allows us readers to understand the present in which the story takes place–specifically, the culture that has formed and why the mermaid society operates with as little humanity in it as possible.

In addition to the depth Dalseno gives Andersen’s original characters, she also throws her own wonderful characters into the mix. None of which are given names and are referred to only by their position in life or easy identifiers, like “the little mermaid.” There’s also one whom I absolutely, tragically adored. I think you’ll know who I’m referring to once you’ve finished the book. 😉

Lastly, Dalseno’s writing was just magical. I almost want to say maybe even on par with Laini Taylor? Considering how much I worship Laini, I think this says a lot! I feel speechless. I guess, Dalseno just has a natural gift for storytelling.

That’s all I’m going to say for now. I know I didn’t go too much into detail, but I think it’s best to go into this one not knowing what to expect–I did, and it went swimmingly for me. (Haha, okay honestly I had so many puns I wanted to include so please allow me this one. XD Sadly, puns just don’t fit the tone of this book.) I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates when an author can take a familiar story or idea and reshape it into something completely their own, or to those who loved the movie Pan’s Labyrinth–both are twisted fairy tales that share similar themes and a similar atmosphere. If you love engaging characters, fairy tales, and/or mermaids, that’s an added bonus. 🙂

I really loved this debut, and can’t wait to read Dalseno’s most recent release, Gabriel and the Swallows.

I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I brought you here to tell you this: sometimes what we are searching for does not exist. We may sacrifice for it, even bleed for it, but it was never meant to be ours.”

You know it’s a good book when the characters still occupy your thoughts from time to time after finishing it, and you still don’t even know their names.


This is one of the few reviews that I am re-posting from Reviews Cubed (link here), but I’ve also revamped it a bit, since I’ve had more experience writing reviews by now. Hope you enjoyed this review! 🙂

(If you’re interested in buying this amazing book, you can use my Book Depository affiliate link here and I will earn a small commission! I think it’s actually the cheapest place to buy it. 😉 Also any commissions I make, I plan on using for giveaways!)

Try “Stretch Your Eyes” by Agnes Obel or maybe the Pan’s Labyrinth soundtrack while reading.

– Taylor

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