Title: The Mermaid and the Unicorn
Author: Elizabeth Amy Hajek
Nutshell: Daphne is an American in Paris! Specifically a timid, sheltered, American collegiate on a study abroad semester in Paris. Overwhelmed her first night, she takes a walk in the evening and meets a sophisticated woman who invites her to her nightclub and then mysteriously disappears. Days later, accompanied by her bubbly roommate Maddie, she does visit, and meets some very interesting characters. She has a fine time, not aware of the threads of conspiracy woven through the place. She is too busy enjoying Paris, soaking in the art and the atmosphere, and of course struggling with the language. She even begins dating one of her classmates. But she will not be allowed to remain ignorant forever. In the first place, she saw something astonishing in a courtyard garden. In the second place, a stranger with a covered face attempted to kidnap her. Twice. And in the third place, someone needs her help.
Read-alikes: Lots of “intro to how the fantasy world is still with us” books are like this one, although this is a milder-mannered book: City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare and The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa. This also reminds me very much of A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle. Also, of books I have read recently, Her Royal Spyness is similar in feel, because of how the main character is a sheltered young woman finding her way in a city, although the content is vastly different.
If I have a complaint about this book it’s that it started off rather slowly as it built its foundation and still couldn’t manage to avoid the eleventh-hour explanation of a bunch of factors that went into the conclusion. As both the beginning and the conclusion were compelling, however, I forgive it.
For about the first half of the book, I was reading a romance with fantastical elements. It’s not quite what I expected, nor what the back of the book advertised, but it was delightful and engaging. Being myself a “religious,” formerly sheltered person, I found Daphne’s character painfully relatable. (I am so glad I’ve learned some confidence!) But though the plot was the sort of tale where an uncertain girl blossoms into a woman of confidence and purpose, she wasn’t dragged there by her extroverted friends, as often happens in romances. I hate books where the romance is formed on the concept that an extroverted man makes an introverted woman “break out of her shell” by dragging her to things and “teaching her how to have fun.” I’m often annoyed when friendships are based on that as well, since I can sense the simmering resentment that this breeds. There was some, “You should broaden your horizons” moments in Mermaid, but it was always gently and considerately done.
The prose of the book read like a newer author, but only where it didn’t matter. I still laughed at the interactions a lot of the time. I found myself wishing for a Scottish friend, or an English Major friend with a practical streak, just because of how fun the cast of characters was. And although the prose was a bit predictable, the story was very not! Things that seemed very by-the-book at first turned out to be completely the opposite of their appearance (a dashing, womanizing type turned out to be a dependable father, for example), and being truly surprised was a really enjoyable experience.