Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: They say the prince married a girl who was not what she appeared and that another girl who saved the kingdom vanished without a trace. Some said it was witchcraft. Some said it was only a legend. For those who knew the truth, it was magic. Rescued from the sea at an early age, Pearl grew up within sight of the water, and the castle. With her pale skin and silvery hair, she was an outcast in the village. Her only friend was a boy she met on the beach – a young prince named James, who understood Pearl’s desire just to be like everyone else. Their friendship is viewed from afar by many: a disdainful king, Pearl’s worried foster parents, a jealous young mermaid, a lovestruck merman, and the powerful sea witch. Now a storm brews in the kingdom, with a tidal force that could keep James and Peal apart.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
Every time I read one of these Once Upon a Time books, I am less and less impressed with whoever’s in charge of writing the advertising blurb. It’s called misrepresentation, guys, and it’s annoying as hell. But that’s neither here nor there, really.
We start this novel with a spot of intrigue, or at least, with Vigue’s best attempt at it. In an italicized prologue, a girl named Pearl, who we have no real reason to feel any attachment to yet, is walking down the aisle on her wedding day full of fear and panic and heartbreak because the man waiting for her at the end of the aisle is not who she wants to be marrying. And once we’ve whet our appetite with that, we start the book for realsies with a jump into the past to see who this girl named Pearl is and why we should care about her.
Years before, a fisherman was out on the ocean when a storm came up out of nowhere. He had no warning, no time to get to shore. Convinced that he was about to die, he did his best to soldier on bravely and face his death with dignity and honor, when a voice spoke in his head, telling him to cast his nets over. He did so, and when he pulled them back in, there was a child, pale as death, caught in them. Knowing that God wanted him to find this girl, the fisherman knew he would make it through the storm. And he and his wife took the child in as their own, and named her Pearl for the large black pearl she had clutched in her hand.
Then we jump ahead thirteen years, and it should be noted at this point that each chapter starts off with another italicized sentence that takes us that much further down the aisle, and, I dunno, I guess I understand what she was going for here, but there’s really only so many times and ways you can say “This was a horrible moment for Pearl, walking down the aisle toward someone she didn’t want to marry,” and this book uses all of them and then some.
But in the main storyline, we see Pearl with James, her only real friend who, it turns out, is the prince. They’ve been meeting in secret once a week for ten years, and they really are the closest of friends. The afternoons he spends with Pearl are the only times the prince has to just be James and not a prince, and for Pearl, they’re the one time no one is staring at her too-pale skin and silver hair. Lately, though, the friendship has been changing, because they’re both of marrying age and both being pressured to consider marriage by their families.
And I’m gonna come right out and say it – JAMES WANTS TO MARRY PEARL. Seriously, it’s really obvious, and I’m stressing this because it’s going to be very important when we get a little further into the story. James wants to marry Pearl. He cares about her a great deal, she’s his best friend, she doesn’t care that he’s the prince, and he doesn’t want her to marry the blacksmith who’s twice her age. He’s given this a lot of thought, and he knows that marrying Pearl would give him not only a bride he loves, but also a Queen who can help him rule the country effectively.
He’s setting up everything to ask for Pearl’s hand – he finally introduces himself to her parents and reveals their long-standing friendship, he urges her not to accept the blacksmith, and he asks her to accompany him out for a sail so he can ask her a very important question in a setting that is special.
Now, Pearl has spent her whole life with nightmares that tell her that if she goes into the ocean, she’ll die, so she’s naturally pretty nervous when James asks her to go for a sail, but she figures she’ll be all right on the ocean, as long as she’s not in the ocean. She really wants to go, because the ocean has called to her all her life (spoiler: she’s a mermaid-turned-human. Don’t worry, it’s not a real big spoiler. It’s made pretty obvious, just like James’s plans to ask Pearl to marry him), she’s just kept away because of the nightmares.
So, of course, this means that once out on the water, long enough that they’re out pretty deep, but not long enough for James to have actually asked his question, the boat springs a leak and they start to sink. Pearl is terrified because she doesn’t know how to swim, but through her frantic efforts and the surprisingly helpful tide, she’s able to make it back to shore. James, unfortunately, isn’t so lucky.
He’s injured as the boat sinks, and caught in a current that starts to pull him out to sea. However, he is in some bit of luck – a mermaid, acting on a premonition, has swum to the surface, and sees the danger. She darts forward and, with the help of her brother, drags James to shore and kisses him because she just can’t help herself – he’s so beautiful. The mermaid’s name is Faye, and her brother’s name is Kale, and after James’s life has been saved, Kale pulls Faye away, back down to the depths where they came from.
Pearl finds James washed up on the beach, and he starts babbling his thanks to her for saving him. Pearl’s confused, because she did nothing of the kind, but James is adamant. He caught a glimpse of his rescuer as she dragged him to shore, and she had Pearl’s distinctive skin and hair, so it couldn’t be anyone but Pearl. Pear continues trying to tell him that she didn’t rescue him, but he just looks her in the eye and finally says what he came there to say – kinda. He says, “I will marry the girl who saved me.” I want to stress this again, he says this because he’s convinced that girl was Pearl. He continues to believe this, even when Pearl, just as adamantly tells him, “Then you will not be marrying me.”
We shift then to the underwater world, to Faye and Kale, and we get to learn a little about these two. We learn that they are a prince and a princess of the underwater world, and that Faye’s obsession is with the human world, and Kale’s obsession is keeping his sister out of trouble and finding out what happened to his betrothed, Adriana, who disappeared thirteen years ago and is presumed dead (spoilers: She’s not. That’s Pearl.) And currently, Kale is pretty worried about Faye, because she can’t stop thinking about that human she saved, and he’s afraid she’s going to do something reckless and stupid.
Which is exactly what she does. She disappears, and by the time Kale is able to track her down, he knows there’s only one place she could have gone: to the sea witch. The sea witch, in this version, is thoroughly evil, an immortal sorceress who has a grudge against the royal family and is constantly seeking to hurt them. She was imprisoned by the royal family to a set of caves, but she can still lure young merkin to her home, and that’s what she did with Faye.
Kale goes to visit her, and initially, he just wants confirmation that Faye was as stupid as he’s afraid she was, but he ends up blurting out that he’s fallen in love with a human. See, when he and Faye went to the surface, he caught a glimpse of Pearl in the water, and he’s pretty well convinced that she’s Adriana, his childhood betrothed, and somehow, for some reason, he ends up making a deal with the sea witch of the exact same parameters that Faye did – he’ll be given legs and human lungs, and he’ll have seven days to win the heart of the one he loves. If he can’t, he’ll die. The sea witch tricks him, though, and he isn’t aware that the price she’ll ask will be his eyesight – for he doesn’t know Pearl’s human name, and he’s never heard her speak. He has only seen her, and so that is what is taken away from him.
Up until this point in the novel, I really liked Kale. He seemed like a solid sort of character, but making this deal? I mean, talk about monumentally stupid, folks. He did the exact same thing his sister did – the exact same thing, I’ll add, that he was ready to kill his sister for doing. And you know, if his actions had been motivated differently, if he had become human to protect his sister and bring her home, then we would have been fine. But instead, it’s to go chase after this girl he saw once, who may or may not be this lost girl that he knew and supposedly loved back when they were toddlers.
And honestly, this is where everyone’s characterizations start to fall apart for me, actually. You’ve got Kale, who has inexplicably turned into an idiot. Then you’ve got Pearl, who refused the blacksmith’s proposal because she didn’t know him very well, and feared James’s proposal because she didn’t think she knew him well enough, but then goes and accepts the proposal from Robert, a nobleman she’s never met. This is after, of course, she meets newly-human Kale on the beach and listens to him tell her that she’s a long lost princess from his land named Adriana, that her heart knows him and loves him, that they’re betrothed. They even share an incredibly cheesy kiss. And then she goes and agrees to marry stranger number 4. And you know, for a girl who is supposedly an outcast who won’t get any offers, she’s turning down a whole hell of a lot.
And then there’s James. Oh, sweet Lord, James. Let’s talk about James for a minute.
You remember how James was going to ask Pearl to marry him? You remember how James loved Pearl and was convinced that she’d saved him on the beach? You remember how James had decided that Pearl was the best possible wife, both for him and for the kingdom, because of her intelligence and the way she interacted with him? Well, in comes Faye, and out goes any respect I ever had for this prince.
See, James takes one look at poor, mute Faye who can’t walk, figures out that she must be the one who saved him (and kissed him), and immediately decides that he’s head over heels in love, and must marry this strange new girl who looks just like Pearl!
... okay, so wait a minute. Literally the only things he knows about this girl at this point are: she looks exactly like Pearl, except that she’s more willing than Pearl, because she kissed him. See, Pearl made it pretty clear that she was going to turn down a proposal from James, so he turns around and falls “in love” with a girl who looks just like her but probably won’t say no to being his bride? I’m sorry, that doesn’t really fill me with the confidence that this is going to be a healthy relationship.
And, I’m sorry again, and this is probably the firm realist in me speaking, but I absolutely hate the message this sends. Now, I am not a fan of the "love at first sight" trope in the best of circumstances. But the message that a fairy-tale “true love” marriage based on instantaneous infatuation is preferable than a marriage between based on years’ foundations of respect, equality, and very strong friendship? This gets on my bad side before I'm halfway through typing the sentence. James knows nothing about Faye – he doesn’t know if she’s intelligent, or if she’ll challenge him, or if she’ll help him lead his kingdom, and yet, the moment he meets her, it’s like he never intended to propose to Pearl. In fact, it’s like he forgets about her entirely.
Except that she’s still there, still engaged to Robert but inexplicably drawn to the blind man Kale she met on the beach, who has since be arrested as a murderer because of an overly complicated subplot as full of holes as worn-out pantyhose where Robert and his father are trying to kill the king and James so they can take over the kingdom, and Robert asking to marry Pearl has to do with that . . .? I dunno. Really. I dunno.
And following fast on the heels of characterization in the “things falling apart” department, is this novel’s structure, because we hit the halfway point, and I don’t even know what’s going on with the passage of time anymore. It’s bad enough to start the chapters with this flash-forward to Pearl’s ill-fated wedding, but the even within the chapters, we’re jumping around all over the place as we switch perspective. We leave Pearl wondering if she’s going to accept Robert, and in the next chapter, we see her at the palace, without explanation, only to jump back in the next chapter and pick up where we left off, and . . . it’s incredibly confusing.
And you’d think that, since Faye and Kale are the ones with the draining hourglass in terms of needing to get things done, we’d spend some time in their perspectives to keep the urgency alive, but no. We’re in Pearl’s head, or James’s, and three days pass like it’s nothing, and the focus is just continuously out of place. I felt like I was constantly missing the most important part of the story, having to wait for the next chapter, to hear it in retrospect.
And then there’s this subplot. And honestly, I can’t even summarize it without sounding like an idiot because it just plain does not make sense. Robert and his father are trying to frame Kale for murder because of reasons, but even though Faye finds him in the dungeons and Pearl, more importantly, finds him in the dungeons, at no point does he say to her, “Hey, I’m a merman, you’re a mermaid, you were cursed by this evil sea witch, and so was I, and if you don’t agree to marry me by the end of the week, and James doesn’t agree to marry Faye, we’re both gonna die,” despite the fact that he, unlike Faye, has not lost his voice, and nothing in the sea witch’s curse prevents him from saying any of this. Debbie Vigue, I just ended your novel fifty pages sooner than you did.
But seriously, he says nothing that actually helps Pearl, speaking instead in these vague riddles that are supposed to, I don’t know, not freak her out, but your life’s on the line, dude, and so is your sister’s, and all you have to do is open your mouth and speak coherently, you know. And Pearl! All you have to do is bring James down to the dungeon, and we can all go home!
But no, Vigue has to give us the last ditch crashing the wedding (somehow) scene where Kale spouts more vague platitudes, and Pearl leaves Robert at the alter to go confront her destiny by diving into the sea and using her midnight Deus-ex-machina pearl to suddenly remember all the things and defeat the sea witch and undo all her curses just by . . . clutching this pearl and saying, “I undo all your curses.” Seriously. Seriously.
Because the sea witch had a necklace of midnight pearls that she could use to harness magic and break the bonds the royal family put on her, but when she kidnaped Adriana, adriana grabbed one, and with the necklace broken, its power was gone, apparently, but then why not work the incredibly powerful magic that a single pearl seems to have when you have, like, twenty of them still, and – no. I’m done with trying to introduce logic.
Pearl saves the day! Yay! She’s magical and crap!
Anyway, she lifts the curse on Faye and Kale, turning them back into merkin, and she has regained her mermaid form, and the king’s guard catch Robert and his father, and then, for one shining moment, I thought that maybe we were going to salvage a bit of this at the end. Maybe we were still going to separate the mermaid and her prince, but no. Magic Pearl Adriana uses her magic pearl to give Faye legs and human form free of charge! Voice included! And so everyone lives happily ever freakin’ after. Except Cassie.
This one just plain tried too hard, from about a third of the way in onward. I was on board in the beginning, let’s be clear. I loved the set-up and where I thought the story was going. But then, we had to find a way to work in an eventual happily ever after, and we had to find a way to add conflict beyond just unrequited love, and we had to find a way to wrap everything up in a neat little package, and I don’t know why I’m surprised, really. Checklist.
Exploration of the human characters? This is James, and technically Pearl, and I liked both of them a lot better before the mermaids showed up. Well, okay, to be fair, I was pretty on board with Pearl all the way through. She was done pretty well, consistently, even if the situations she was forced into were subpar. Her characterization never wavered, and I liked her, and I was rooting for her. As for James, though . . . pre-near-death-experience James, I like a lot. The James who wants a best friend who treats him like a person, the James in love with Pearl, making the smart marriage choice for the kingdom? He’s great. James in love with the mermaid? Get him away from me. So, partial point.
No villainization of the side characters? Yeah, the sea witch was evil through and through, and cruel and vindictive and had no soul or redeeming characteristics to speak of. And that wasn’t enough villainization, it seems, because we added Robert and his father, so poorly characterized as to be utterly forgettable. No point.
The message in the end? Your best friend who’s hesitant to marry you because you’re a prince and she’s a commoner can and should be replaced with a mute look-alike who’s willing to kiss you? Yeah, fantastic message. Totally giving you that point. Hans Christian Anderson’s message has nothing on yours. / sarcasm.
And see, here’s the thing. I feel like, somewhere in this novel, there is a seed of a good story, if you can just get past the incredibly poor adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” and the absolutely horrific story structure and the erroneous and unnecessarily complicated subplots. The story of a girl who doesn’t fit in but finds a friend in the Prince, who agrees to a marriage of equals with him despite her doubts and insecurities, forsaking the idealized notion of “true love” for the real and far more present friendship that can grow into strong love? I’d read that story.
But unfortunately, this book isn’t that story any more than it’s an adequate adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” So better luck next week. Here’s hoping.