Walking on Knives, by Maya Chhabra
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Release Date: July 26, 2017
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
The little mermaid has no idea that as she makes her way on land, she’s being watched over by the sister of the very witch with whom she made her bargain. She has no idea that the witch’s sister is falling in love with her.
When the prince decides to marry another woman, the little mermaid’s secret helper offers her a chance to live. But the price may be too high…
Content Warning for:
Rape (technically on-screen)
I was intrigued by this one (a retelling of the Little Mermaid, who instead falls in love with the sea witch’s sister!) but this novella ended up being an aggravating mess. To understand what’s actually happening, an acquaintance with the Disney movie and at least a passing knowledge of the original Hans Christian Anderson story is necessary. If you haven’t already seen/read those, I wouldn’t bother here because none of this will make sense.
This story comes with a publisher warning about dubious consent. However, I don’t think that entirely covers it. The opening scene of the novella is a rape scene between the little mermaid and the sea witch. Because of how obtuse the language is, it’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it sort of scene, but the little mermaid is definitely experiencing trauma through the rest of the story over it. It is a thoroughly unnecessary scene that created a bad taste in my mouth from the first page. But that is not the scene of dubious consent that the publisher is warning about: that comes later. That’s right, in one novella we get two negative sexual encounters, and any chance of a healthy sexual encounter between the little mermaid and the sea witch’s sister is deliberately made impossible by a later action of the sea witch.
The story tries to retain the flavor of the original fairytale, partially by never giving anyone a name (so every character is perpetually “the little mermaid,” “the sea witch,” “the strange woman,” and so on), and partially by remaining very far outside of each character’s head. This means that we only ever get a very, very shallow understanding of anyone. A love story doesn’t work very well when we have to rely on the author to tell us that the characters love each other.
Not only is there a barrier between the reader and the characters, but the writing is a barrier between the reader and the actual story. It can be astoundingly unclear at times what is physically happening in a scene and who is participating. It feels like there’s more of an emphasis on being artistic with language as opposed to making sure that the language also tells the story.
There’s so much rich material that could be used and explored from the Little Mermaid, but this novella stays too close to the original material and doesn’t really add anything new.
Maya Chhabra graduated from Georgetown University in 2015. Her poetry has appeared in fantasy magazine “Through the Gate” and her reviews have appeared in “Publishers Weekly” and “Strange Horizons.” She lives in New York City. She can be found on Twitter @mayachhabra and on WordPress at https://mayareadsbooks.wordpress.com/
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.