OUR BLOODY PEARL by D. N. Bryn (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warnings: Gore/blood/eating of human body parts (not overly graphic); some violence; coming to terms with new disability; recovery from trauma.
When I first took a look at this book, I was prepared for a swashbuckling tale full of adventure on the high seas, and while there is plenty of piratical action and bloodthirsty merpeople, I was happily surprised to find that at its heart, this book is super soft and sweet. We follow Perle, a siren who has been captured by a pirate, Kian; when Kian’s ship is boarded by another pirate crew, Perle is rescued by the new captain, Dejean, who seems completely different from the cruel Kian. Though Perle tries to escape and return to the sea, they have to come to terms with the injuries (both mental and physical) they’ve sustained under Kian’s abuse, and to do that, they’re going to have to trust Dejean. What starts as a high-octane adventure turns into a story about found family and kindness, and how even the greatest of differences can be overcome with trust. It’s funny and sweet, and full of careful, sensitive character development. I wasn’t expecting such a comforting read!
It’s easy to fall in love with Perle, who narrates the story in first person – they have a brilliantly snarky sense of humour and such an interesting way of looking at the human world (toes are bizarre, and almost everything soft is described as a ‘sponge’, for example). Though the subject matter can be heavy in places, Perle’s voice keeps you engaged and rooting for them. I particularly loved their conversations with Dejean – siren language is unknown to humans, though Perle can understand human speech, so the majority of conversation between Perle and the humans comes down to a sign language that they invent with Dejean. Their fluency with signing improves over the course of the book, but the disparity between what Perle wants to say, or does say, and what Dejean understands, is often very funny and always revealing!
Dejean himself is an utter cinnamon roll, and his kindness rolls off the page in waves. He is strong and fierce when he needs to be, but he’s just a good person, and it’s easy to see why Perle is able to start trusting him. The two of them have so much to teach each other about not only the differences between the siren and human worlds, but also about their own selves. Ugh, their relationship is just so good and wholesome!
The queer rep is just stellar – I would expect any #ownvoices book to be good on this front, but this is just woven in so well to the world and the characters. Perle, as a siren who doesn’t share human gender norms, uses they/them pronouns for themself and all other sirens, and though they are able to identify different gender presentation in humans, never once do they make an assumption. There’s a really great conversation where Perle and Dejean talk about pronouns and gender and sexuality that highlights the differences between the human and siren world. I also thought the asexual rep was some of the best I’ve read – it’s not explicitly mentioned until near the end, but once it is, it feels so right and obvious from all the character work done. Pretty much everyone in this book is queer, I think – certainly we don’t see any straight relationships! – and it’s lovely. There are prominent sapphic side characters in Dejean’s crew (his capable second in command, Simone and a quirky inventor, Murielle, who are incredibly cute together) and a hint at another minor m/nb relationship that may spark in the future.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the specific disability rep, but it felt very sensitively done. As a result of Perle’s capture, they have lost the movement in their tail, which is obviously a huge issue for swimming; the main drive of the plot is Perle learning to adapt to a new way of movement – there’s no magic fix for this disability, but they can learn to do things differently without the use of their tail. This rehabilitation is done through physical therapy and mobility aids, and as we’re in Perle’s head the whole time, we get a clear picture of the effect on their mental health as well as their physical well-being. They have to learn to rely on Dejean and Murielle, and it shows brilliantly how having a good support network can make all the difference in the world when you’re frustrated with your own body. This is compounded by the fact that as a siren, Perle can’t get around on land (even if their tail was working), so communication and trust is key to their survival, let alone their happiness. Perle’s realisation that though they may never return to their siren pod, they have accidentally formed a new pod with Dejean and his crew, is so heartwarming!
I loved every second of this book. There’s a very tight focus on Perle, whose movement is limited, so we don’t get to see a large amount of the world, but even in the smallest scenes it’s clear these are fully realised people in a fully realised world. I’m a huge sucker for a found family, when it’s done right (I so often see it applied to books where there is just a group of people working together, but that’s not it – it’s gotta have a real quality of bond to it) and this is one of the best examples I’ve read. It combines adventure and fluff in the perfect quantities to make it great, cosy escapism. Fans of Becky Chambers who want something a bit more fantastic will find a lot to love here! This book just wants to wrap you in a blanket and give you a kiss on the forehead. Our Bloody Pearl is an absolute treasure!