fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Donna Jo Napoli SirenaSirena by Donna Jo Napoli

Now famous for her ability to take old, familiar tales and present them through new perspectives, Donna Jo Napoli tackles the subject of Greek mythology and the captivating mermaids of the oceans.

The Sirens were long thought to be deadly women, either humanoid or bird-like, who lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks with their enticing songs. But Napoli presents the Grecian Sirens as mermaids — half-women, half-fish, a hybrid creature who are just as cursed as the men they destroy. Due to a spiteful nymph’s curse, the mermaids are mortal until they can cause a man to fall in love with them and be their mate, thereby securing immortality for themselves (quite a change from the usual stories when falling in love means a heroine must give up her immortality). Thus, the heroine Sirena and her nine sisters spend each day on the lookout for ships, carrying precious men.

But when their plan of enticing the men to love them goes terribly wrong, and Sirena’s younger sister is killed, she vows never to harm a human life in order to gain immortality and swims from her family and all that she’s ever known, to the deserted island of Lemnos to live out her mortal life. But Fate it would seem has different ideas for Sirena, and when the Greek soldiers heading for the Trojan War abandon one of their men on the shores of Lemnos, the inevitable happens…

Philoctetes is a handsome young warrior, but the festering serpent wound upon his ankle has caused his fellow companions to discard him. Sirena cares for him, and Philoctetes is enchanted by the marvelous creature. But when warding off a dangerous she-bear with her song, Philoctetes overhears, and Sirena fears that their new-found love is based on nothing more than enchantment on his behalf. Throughout the years of the Trojan War the two live peacefully together, intellectually debating issues such as honour and glory, and sharing many stories together of well-placed Greek mythology. Yet Sirena mourns — Philoctetes love has made her immortal, yet he is not, and she can see the signs of age appear on his day by day. And it would seem he and his poisonous arrows still have a part to play in the far-off raging Trojan War…

It’s hard to imagine any fans of Donna Jo Napoli not enjoying this accompaniment to her collection of re-told tales. Calling on Greek mythology that she adds in throughout the story, and much of her own ideas, such as the gaining of mermaid mortality, Napoli creates a familiar yet fresh presentation of old ideas. Her language, told in first-person narrative through Sirena’s eyes is vivid and atmospheric — her creation of life in the sea, and Sirena’s explorations up in the rivers of the island are especially enjoyable. Anyone with fore-knowledge about the Trojan War and Philoctetes’ part to play within it may already know how the story ends, and may be already shedding a tear, but either way, this is a powerful, beautiful, tragic story about the giving and receiving of love, life and sacrifice.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.