This week’s story is Alsyssa Wong’s The Fisher Queen. I’ve got a weakness for mermaid stories which you may have figured out since this is the second one to go through the crucible. (Somebody else asked for it, I swear!) This is a great one, though, and very different from the last one even though mermaid as fish is a huge, significant element in the story.
What I want to examine here is the way Wong uses reversals to build the story. There are several important ones leading up to the final reversal that resolves everything, and each one is really important to the turns of the story. The first is the narrator’s stance on mermaids.
Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people.
Asserting this up front lets the story explain the economy around mermaid meat and the “fairy tale” stories about her mother without tipping its hand for where its’ going. Obviously mermaids are going to be important, they’re all over the opening, but how they’re going to matter isn’t clear. That the narrator is going to change her position on the peoplehood of mermaids isn’t terribly surprising, but how that change is going to happen isn’t all that clear.
But her change in position introduces another reversal, as well.
Iris is a marine biologist wannabe, almost done with high school but too dumb to go to university, who lectures us on fishes like we haven’t been around them our whole lives. She sleeps with the biology textbook I stole from the senior honor kids’ classroom under her pillow.
That’s the whole of her introductory comments about Iris. For the most part her sisters get referred to together for the next section of the story. We know the narrator isn’t entirely reliable because we know her assertions about mermaids are clearly wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to us to question why this is her description of her sister. But she’s actually more misleading in her description of Iris than she was when she was talking about mermaids.
Because, of course, she’s put the pieces together and figured out why her sister isn’t going to school anymore, and doesn’t actually blame her. It’s the recognition, and her inability to do anything with that knowledge, that leads to her reversal on her stance of mermaids as not people. The sister who’s “too dumb to go to university” and the dumb fish have something in common, and that’s the bridge the narrator walks to reach her new understanding.
And that understanding is critical to the story’s ending, because it’s not just a simple “mermaids are people” realization. It’s a realization of shared helplessness, shared brutalization at the hands of the same perpetrators – Abhe was potentially a “close friend” for our narrator – and the need to address that helplessness that dictates the nature of the boon she requests.
Of course, the most tangible reversal of the story is swapping the fishermen with the mermaids. What I like about this solution is it’s as close to victimless as this sort of vengeance plot can be. The families of the sailors lose their husbands and fathers, but they still get the wealth brought by the haul of mermaids. The mermaids have an awkward week spent ashore but then get to go back to the sea. The bereaved even have the benefit of being in a community that shares their grief, rather than having to suffer alone. This is probably the most responsible vengeance scheme I’ve encountered in fiction. (It also supports my pet theory that the secret to safely using wishes granted by magical creatures is to make a wish that also serves the creature’s interests)
A neat thing about how the reversals in this story work is that they follow the fairy tale structure of coming in threes while each also prepares the reader for the next. The reader sees the change from fish – people, then from deluded failure to victim, then from abuser to vanquished. It’s a very modern story, but is simultaneously very old in the bones of how it’s told.