The best novels featuring folklore of the sea

The Books I Picked & Why

Things in Jars

By Jess Kidd

Book cover of Things in Jars

Why this book?

I loved this novel by Jess Kidd (and all her novels, natch) from the moment I started reading. Who wouldn’t love a Victorian-era set story of spectacle and sideshow, featuring lady detective Bridie Devine as she sets out to find a mysterious child who has disappeared? The child in question, Christabel, is rumored to be a Merrow, a kind of mermaid. Ruby Doyle, a dead man who may or may not be a hallucination (brought on by whatever it is that Bridie is constantly smoking) assists her in her investigations. The prose is charming, entertaining, and gripping. There is magic, folklore, and bags of personality.

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The Sealwoman's Gift

By Sally Magnusson

Book cover of The Sealwoman's Gift

Why this book?

I love this book for many reasons. The Sealwoman is a passenger on the slave ship that takes our protagonist form her beloved homeland, and the ‘gift’ of the title is the story she tells of her shapeshifting roots. The voyage is hellish, and contains a terrifying birth scene among other unspeakable, unimaginable, only just survivable events. It’s based on a true story, which makes it all the more powerful, and it makes me wonder about the hidden truths in the folklore contained within it, especially the sealwoman’s story. 

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By Amy Sackville

Book cover of Orkney

Why this book?

This exquisite novel begins with a university lecturer (Too old? Too deluded?) in love with student forty years his junior. She’s an ethereal, white-haired creature, but at first, their love seems mutual, and plausible. They honeymoon in Orkney, where selkie legends begin to encroach on his state of mind. He’s obsessed with her, and she’s obsessed with the sea. The reader is never quite sure if she’s a selkie or not, which resonates with me as I love books where ambiguity is an integral part of the narrative. 

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The Mermaid of Black Conch

By Monique Roffey

Book cover of The Mermaid of Black Conch

Why this book?

A fisherman visits a mermaid, who is not what fairy stories might have you expect. She is powerful, alien, beautiful and strange, and soon captured by a drunken group of loutish sailors, strung up as an oddity/ David knows she is more than simply a creature, that she is a being, a precious person deserving of respect, worth more than those who would treat her as a trophy. After he rescues her, the transformation begins, which is at once devastating, beautiful, and full of human truth. I couldn’t put this book down, and though I don’t often cry whilst reading, this was one of those books that stayed with me, emotionally. I still think about it all the time.

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Deep Water

By Lu Hersey

Book cover of Deep Water

Why this book?

In this prize-winning novel for older teenagers, Hersey recreates a story of Selkie lore which, in terms of the magical element, remains largely faithful to the original folklore. Teenager Danni’s mother has disappeared, so her daughter sets out to find her. Danni finds herself in her mother’s small Cornish hometown, and soon discovers secrets about her family that are so surprising and hard to believe, they threaten to blow her world apart. What follows is an adventure that enthralls deeply, incorporating fantasy elements into a satisfyingly emotional, realistic story. Stylistically, the sea, selkies, the coastline, and the landscape play important parts, providing an atmospheric backdrop to this fast-moving thrill ride. 

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