Donna Jo Napoli,
(Scholastic, 1998)

Donna Jo Napoli takes a look at mermaids in Sirena, a tale set against the backdrop of ancient Greece and the Trojan War.

Sirena and her sister mermaids are mortal, at risk from any of the perils of the sunny sea that is their home. Their mortality is a curse from the jealous sea nymph Rhodope and can only be lifted if they can get human men to love them. Thus, the sisters eagerly await a ship which they will lure onto the rocky reef, seducing its sailors with their magical voices.

But when it finally happens, the results are disastrous for both mermaids and men. Conscience-stricken, Sirena swims away to the abandoned island of Lemnos, determined to live out her days alone, unloved, and very mortal.

Then the ships come. They wait out at sea as a young man is taken ashore and abandoned. He suffers from a snakebite wound which festers and will not heal; believing him cursed by the goddess Hera, the sailors decide to put him off the ship to keep the curse away from them.

Those familiar with the story of the Trojan War will recognize him: he is Philoctetes, friend of Heracles, who gave him his bow and poisoned arrows. Philotectes considers the gift a sacred trust and guards the bow and arrows with care. It is his friendship with Heracles that aroused Hera's anger.

At first, Sirena tends his wounds and brings him water and food while he is unconscious, but gradually, she reveals herself. They become friends as Philoctetes starts to settle in to the island, and eventually, inevitably lovers. Sirena has a husband and her immortality and they are happy until the day they must both face a devastating choice. The decision, when it comes, is one made mutually out of love and trust, and the conclusion, while sad, is satisfying.

The plot flows smoothly, narrated by Sirena in first-person present, and the story, although simply told, is compelling. Napoli uses vivid telling imagery to bring characters and setting to life. Sirena and Philoctectes develop nicely as they grow into their relationship, which fits neatly into the established structure of the story of the Trojan War.

Haunting and thought-provoking, Sirena more than meets the standards set by Napoli's other books.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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