A Jewel From the Deep: A Review of "Princess of Undersea" by Leslie Conzatti
I obtained this novella directly from the author. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant at first. This is highly personal, but the moment I see words such as ‘King’, ‘Prince’, and ‘Princess’ I usually run a mile without looking back, occasionally screaming loudly.
Sometimes it seems as if contemporary fantasy landscapes are exclusively populated by royals. In general, I find these elevated worshipfulnesses far less interesting than common folk with far more relatable struggles. Furthermore, I have a strong aversion to the cutification of the Fae in all shapes and sizes. It seems to me that the Merfolk have especially suffered greatly from Disney’s sugar-sweet, peachy-clean, empty-headed overdoses of cuteness.
Yeah, I know, I have become an unapologetic, cynical and grumpy old man.
Fortunately for me, I had previously read an anthology contribution by Conzatti (‘Arthur and the Egg’ in Dreamtime Dragons) that I enjoyed greatly and admired for its inventive imagination (not a royal in sight!). I also really dig fairy tales, specifically the gruesome originals, so I decided to delve into Conzatti’s re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
The author immediately proved all my cynical expectations to be eminently misplaced. I finished Princess of Undersea in a single sitting, unable to put it down. Conzatti manages to breathe fresh life and a suitable sense of the nitty-gritty into this classic story, and it was a joy to read.
There was no dreaded cutification. On the contrary, Conzatti makes a couple of tongue-in-cheek references to human expectations of mermaids which had me grinning. No voluptuous bared bosoms (deemed totally impracticable for rapid movement through the water by the protagonist Princess Ylaine), and no unnecessary facial features such as a nose (who needs one when breathing is done through gills?). Further descriptions of the Merfolk accentuate the differences, rather than similarities between Merfolk and humans. For me, this made Conzatti’s ‘Undersea’ world far more believable and interesting. There is a scene in which Ylaine encounters every day human objects taken from a shipwreck, which we recognise but she doesn’t. Apart from adding a bit of humour this way (always a good thing), it also emphasises that Ylaine knows very little about the human world – to her it’s totally alien. It’s also a world that fascinates her, but knowing humans all too well, the reader here knows something Ylaine doesn’t, that it probably is best to stay far, far away from us and our destructive habits.
Of course, Ylaine ignores her father’s (and the reader’s) warnings. For this the reader forgives her readily, because she’s a delightful character: Curious and spontaneous. Intelligent enough to recognise that she is chasing a dream, idealistic enough to pursue it anyway because she reckons that’s what dreams are for. She’s also resourceful, for she has to make her way in a world entirely unknown to her, one in which she’s totally out of her depth (I really wanted to say that).
I also really liked that the magic in the story comes at a price and isn’t easy. I always feel somewhat cheated when magic is something produced seemingly without effort, and as simple as making a cup of tea, unless it’s brought extremely well. Ylaine’s transformation is a bit of a painful ordeal, as should be really, when this involves changing the physiological makeup of a living creature. Rather her than me, but more kudos to Ylaine for willing to undergo it in order to achieve her goals.
I had less connection with Prince Nathan from the land based kingdom of Overcliff. He basically embodies everything I tend to dislike about royal characters, swanning about in their finery without the slightest clue as to what sacrifices others have to make in order to facilitate their life of privilege. The clever thing Conzatti does here, is to ensure the hardships of common folk are not kept out of sight of the reader, and deliberately present Nathan as a bit of a spoiled brat. The drawback of that, of course, is that the reader may not sympathise with him all that quickly. For me, that didn’t detract from believing Ylaine fancied him, young people being young people, and love a powerful force. However, towards the end I wasn’t entirely sure Nathan deserved her. He has a lot to learn, and does so, but most of that process seems to take place almost in the blink of an eye. Conzatti does a fine job of remembering that Princess of Undersea is a novella length story and doesn’t bog the reader down in unnecessary world-building, or other matters which slow the narrative (whilst still working in a few unexpected twists and turns). Yet, I would have welcomed a slightly expanded coverage of Nathan’s own transformations, if only to convince me of the sustainable sincerity of it.
I was happy with the ending, as the main issues are resolved, and I am always happy to fill in the lesser blanks, but I understand that Conzatti has promised a tie-in story, which I await impatiently.
All in all, this was a delightful read, and far more than just a retelling. The story has no pretensions beyond what a novella allows lengthwise, but it’s all the better for it I feel, and as it has lingered in my mind, it certainly manages to be a thought-provoking and intelligent yarn. I definitely recommend a visit to Undersea and Overcliff.