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.