Book Review: Pouraka by Dianne Lynn Gardner

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Review of Pouraka

Pouraka by Dianne Lynn Gardner is a young adult urban fantasy romance. That’s a lot of things, but I arrive at that like this: it’s young adults, romantically involved, who happen to be mer-people (fantasy) in a contemporary (urban) setting. When I do reviews, I feel the first item on the agenda is to identify the material for the potential reader. If mermaids and romance float your boat (pun intended), read on.

The story opens with Tas and Tama grieving at their mother’s grave, but moves on quickly to aspects of undersea life. There’s a surfacer attack, Tama is injured and a subsequent decision is made to move to ‘safer waters’ in the North. I’m on board with getting things rolling fast, but as a veteran fantasy reader I wanted author Gardner to slow down. I wanted to be better anchored in the setting and at least the mechanism of how people speak underwater addressed. Even a one-liner would have satisfied me, so at least I would feel like the author considered it. Given this is taking place under water, my anticipation was that setting would play a larger role as well.

In chapter three we are introduced to Cora, who we are immediately shown transforming from human appearance to mer. She is chided that she spends too much time on land and a whole new aspect is opened up in the milieu. Now, caveat emptor, I am not the typical consumer of romance, so if I’m missing something, it’s all on me. Tas the romantic interest is introduced in chapter 3, and not but a few pages later in chapter 4 Cora is confiding semi-serious feelings to her human friend living in Barnacle Cove. I’m pumping the brakes here because we haven’t yet even had a personal scene with the beau talking to the heroine (so far, only an initial encounter where they expressed mutual admiration). Am I overthinking things? I write too and I’m jealous because it takes me several chapters to get two characters in each other’s sights. Okay, chalk this up to genre unfamiliarity.

In chapter 6, we are back in Tas’ point of view. Now, we’re having the conversation and getting those signals that I naively expected to come first. The narrative perks up quite a bit here with his thoughts, emotions, and inner dialogue. There’s friction and hesitation between he and Cora and that’s as it should be.

Calamity strikes in chapter eight, events serving to isolate Tas and Cora. Again, for me it’s all happening a bit too fast, as we are pushed toward the schema that best serves the drama. I don’t necessarily mind this, but tragedy, especially as compelling as what is suggested needs more setup, execution, and denouement. There’s a matter of harpoons being shot with no boats visible. Also, I’m missing why. Because there are evil people? While evil does happen because humans are messed up, typically evil is done for gain of some kind. Not really seeing the motivation. No rationale is offered. The mers of Pouraka cavern who swore such a thing to be impossible just pages before, don’t even remark on it. Further, just coincidentally none of the Pouraka clan get targeted. This triggers tremors in the plausibility meter.

Chapter Eleven has Cora’s brother Ko willingly choose a life permanently changed into a dolphin. Now, this might have been sold to me if he were old or didn’t have a mate. He wasn’t old, and left behind a grieving mate. For me, that spanks of a selfishness the character is being portrayed not to have. Further, I didn’t really see how being a dolphin was more “natural” than being a mer in the context of the story. For me, the mers who breathe water (or seem to) are more versatile than dolphins that must take air on the surface. So, the whole rationale didn’t work for me.

Moving into the middle act the story becomes a multi-sided struggle with selfish wildlife killers, nature respectors, human-phobic and human-admiring mers. This worked to polarize the cast and keep tension in the story.

The final act becomes a rescue mission with Cora pursuing the captured Tas. There are some twists and turns and tension is maintained through to the climax. I won’t ruin the ending but I found myself disappointed by choices made by the principle protagonists.

Rating (1-5)

Execution  :  3.5 — The book is competently written, but as I said in the general sections it felt rushed. The viewpoint is fairly consistent, but it only really goes deeply into the characters in a few spots. I am not a romance reader and for me, the courting aspect of the romance seemed oddly missing. Perhaps that’s naivety on my part, not having read very many such stories. Some aspects of the story felt contrived to push the plot agenda. The best example of this is when Tas’ clan gets slaughtered out of no-where and Radcliff who instigates the situation, barely owns up to it. Tas’ response to the death of his brother as a direct consequence of Radcliff’s actions… I had a lot of trouble with that depiction.

Setting  :  3.0 — I honestly wanted more setting detail, particularly framing detail. For me, too much was left to my imagination. There was enough that I wasn’t completely lost, but given the nature of the story and the difficult to envision environment, more would have helped keep me in the story.

Character  :  3.5 — The characters are sympathetic but the sphere of their freedom in the story is very limited. It feels like author Gardner walls them in. This gave the narrative a claustrophobic story on rails kind of feel at times.

Overall  :  4.0 — I am rating the overall higher than the breakdown because there is warmth and good intent in this story. I did feel disappointed at the black and white portrayal here. It’s pet peeve of mine when a story declares ‘there’s only one choice’ and I can see three or four workable solutions in a matter of seconds. The idea that the mers were truly backed in a corner lacked ambition and courage. It’s fantasy, albeit urban fantasy, but if the clan can summon a storm with magic, they had other options. It was simply that those options weren’t convenient for the bittersweet portrayal author Gardner was shooting for. I don’t begrudge the author being able to put a bow on it, but I just thought the sea people would be just a trifle more resilient and adaptable.

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