The sea is wild and untamed, and she gives life to numerous beings who live in her embrace and occasionally step out of it. These creatures are sometimes sweet, like Disney’s Ariel, but more often than not, they’re terrifying, unfathomable entities with societies and cultures that are very different from our own. However, they can be identical to us in other ways as they navigate love, betrayal, grief, belonging, and trauma.
From mermaids and sirens to sea gods, demi-gods, and monsters of the deep, dive in below (get it?) and check out my picks for the 12 best books about fascinating sea creatures.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
Yetu is a Historian, selected to preserve the memories of the Wanjiru, the descendants of pregnant African women who were thrown overboard by slave traders. While her people enjoy carefree and joyful lives, Yetu recalls everything, including the history of the “two-legs” and the Wajinru who came before her. However, the burden has become too heavy for her. So, when the time comes for her to pass on the memories to her people for a short time, she flees instead, escaping to the surface, where she encounters a two-legs named Oori and learns the truth about her kind.
To call The Deep a “mermaid book” would be gravely dismissive. It’s so much more than that, as it delves into the history of racism and the resulting generational trauma. Remembering our history as Black people is so important but that remembrance comes with constant pain and grief. However, there’s also the possibility of joy and love in our future, and through Yetu’s relationship with Oori, Rivers Solomon explores all this intimately in less than 200 pages.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
The ancient city of Tova is ruled by four powerful matriarchal clans who answer to the Watchers, an order of masked astronomer priests. In a horrifying event known as the Night of Knives, the Watcher’s guards slaughter many of the Carrion Crow clan, which sets the stage for the events of this book.
Two decades later, Xiala, a ship captain and disgraced Teek whose Song can calm the waters, is tasked to transport a blind man named Serapio to Tova.
During this trip, the impossible occurs. While attempting to save two of her crewmates—whom we all agree she should have left to die, the murdering, misogynistic bastards—she transforms into a mermaid. She avoids getting killed for her trouble thanks to Serapio’s assistance, but she soon discovers that his mission may mark the end of not just Tova but the entire Meridian continent. Inspired by the diverse pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, Black Sun is a fantastic, immersive experience you will never forget.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Flora is a former street urchin who joins a pirate crew with her older brother. To stay safe aboard the Dove, she takes on the identity of Florian, a man who can be as brutal as the rest of the crew. The Dove runs a clever scam: because it looks like a passenger ship, they collect passengers like a legal business, only to sell them into slavery. It’s through this scheme that Flora meets Lady Evelyn, a young aristocrat who is deemed worthless by her family because of her gender.
After the crew captures a mermaid to sell her blood—mermaid blood is like a narcotic of sorts for humans—Flora/Florian and Evelyn plan a wild escape that will free the mermaid, involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, and an opportunistic witch. Although this story doesn’t focus much on the mermaids, we do get a personification of the powerful, all-encompassing Sea itself. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea delivers a thoughtful exploration of gender, identity, and privilege, and a critique of imperialism and colonialism.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan’s bestselling MG/YA fantasy series hardly requires an introduction. Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is unwillingly plunged into a world of gods and monsters after he finds out that he’s the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas and storms. PJO is a fantastic work of fiction! Although I initially read this book as a middle-schooler, each subsequent re-read has only deepened my love for the magical universe that Rick Riordan created. And it’s not just nostalgia that fuels my appreciation; the series holds up under critical analysis as well. There are entire generations of readers who will never forget the demigod hero also known as Seaweed Brain. Just please don’t ruin the adaptation, Disney!
Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen
Simidele is a Mami Wata, remade by the Orisa, Yemoja when the first colonialists arrived stealing people away on their ships. Her role is simple: gather the souls of those who pass away in the sea and bless their journey back to the Creator, Olodumare. Then a living boy is thrown overboard and Simi goes against her duty to save his life, unknowingly defying Olodumare’s decree. To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must travel to the Supreme Creator and seek forgiveness.
Some books have such a profound impact on you that they feel like a gift. This is one of them for me. As a Nigerian raised on horror stories about Mami Wata, it was exhilarating to read a book centered on them. The fact that the story is interlaced with old Yoruba, the kind my great-grandmother would have spoken, was also amazing! I may or may not have shed a tear.
Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
In this reimagining of Disney’s Ursula, Evie is an outcast who must keep her magic hidden or face persecution and death. When a mermaid named Annamette—the spitting image of Evie’s drowned best friend Anna—washes up on the shore, Evie believes Anna has returned to her. Annamette tells Evie she’ll have a soul and be able to stay a human if her true love—Prince Nik, Evie’s best friend—loves her back and kisses her before three days are over. Motivated by her resurrected friendship (despite Annamette’s denials), Evie chooses to use her magic to grant her friend’s wishes. Little does she know that Annamette has dark secrets of her own and the cost of her actions will be more than she ever imagined.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
Set in an alternate Portland inhabited with sirens, mermaids, gargoyles, and other mystical creatures, A Song Below Water is the story of two Black girls and best friends, Tavia and Effie. Tavia is a Siren, a species comprised solely of Black women, who are persecuted for their Voice—the power they have to control people’s actions. The fact that the Sirens don’t employ this power is irrelevant to the rest of the world. That they can, is regarded as dangerous, and they are usually silenced. Effie is Something Else, consumed by her guilt at being linked to multiple incidents of people being turned to stone. Both girls are just trying to get through high school in peace despite the racism they frequently encounter in the predominantly white city.
But then a Black woman is murdered by her boyfriend, and she’s subsequently accused of being a Siren (we see this frequently with how the media portrays Black victims as the antagonists), and a popular YouTuber reveals she’s a Siren and leads a protest for the murdered woman. Tavia’s predicament is exacerbated following a police encounter where she is forced to use her Voice to flee. By using the Siren powers as an allegory to examine the misogynoir that Black girls and women face in the real world, Bethany C. Morrow has crafted a stunning but heartbreaking novel about two young girls who must confront systemic oppression, anti-Blackness, and police brutality for a chance at freedom.
If you’ve ever wanted to read about bloodthirsty mermaids, these books are for you! In Rolling in the Deep, an entertainment company, Imagine Network sends a documentary crew on the cruise ship, The Atargatis to the isolated seas above the Mariana Trench. Their mission: discover if mermaids actually exist and if they don’t, film professional swimmers wearing neoprene fishtails. Then, crew members begin to disappear one by one. And at the end, Imagine Network is left with only hazy but gruesome footage that alludes to a terrible truth.
Into the Drowning Deep takes place seven years later as the Imagine Network assembles a fresh crew on The Melusine to set sail for answers. Each crew member has their own reason for embarking on the suicidal quest. Among them is Victoria Stewart, the grieving sister of a member of The Atargatis crew who hopes the voyage will finally grant her closure. Do they survive or not? Go read it and find out!
To Kill a Kingdom by Alexander Christo
Lira is a royal siren and the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of them. Widely acclaimed as the Princes’ bane, she possesses a collection of seventeen royal hearts. But, after some unfortunate events lead to the wrath of her mother, the Sea Queen—who isn’t nearly as proud of Lira as she should be and, let’s be honest, is very easy to offend—she’s transformed into a loathsome human–her words, not mine—and tasked with delivering the heart of Prince Elian, the heir to the most powerful kingdom.
Elain, on the other hand, is an expert hunter of sirens and would relish the opportunity to take out the Prince’s Bane. However, he discovers a drowning human girl in the middle of the ocean and saves her. She tells him she has the key to purging the sea of all sirens and they start working together and, of course, fall for each other — which proves that teenagers should never be trusted with stuff like this. Still, it’s an enjoyable read, and it’s wonderful to see Lira’s violent behavior doesn’t alter much.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
If you’re reading this list, I’m assuming you’re looking for stories about sea creatures, so including this book feels like a copout. Yes, there is a mermaid, but it’s dead for the majority of the novel, and the focus is primarily on the human protagonists. However, if you’re looking for atmospheric writing and excellent prose in a historical context that addresses privilege, greed, ambition, and the challenges facing sex workers, this is the book for you!
Jonah Hancock is a placid merchant who manages several ships from the comfort of his home. One day, one of his captains arrives and informs Jonah that he has sold his ship for a mermaid corpse. Jonah handles the news far better than I would, even turning into a showman by putting the creature on display at a coffee shop and charging people to see it. This chain of events leads to him making an acquaintance with Angelica Neal, a gorgeous courtesan who later becomes Mrs. Hancock. But greed and ambition drive their actions, and the result could be disastrous for all.
The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre
This classic fantasy story takes place in seventeenth-century France, near the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Father Yves de la Croix, a Jesuit priest is assigned to capture a sea monster for His Majesty’s menagerie. He succeeds and returns to Versaille with two of these creatures, one dead for dissection and the other alive.
Marie-Josèphe, Father Yves’ sister, is tasked with caring for the monster, but her interactions with it reveal that it is not an animal, but an intelligent being, a sea-woman who had a family and a life before she was abducted. To save the sea woman’s life, she must persuade others of what she has discovered and stop Louis from devouring the sea woman in his need to obtain immortality.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Mina is from a village ravaged by storms and death, in this feminist version of the Korean folk tale “The Tale of Shim Cheong.” The villagers think that the angry Sea God is to blame for their misfortune. As a result, they sacrifice a young girl to the sea every year. From Andromeda to the King’s daughter in Grimms’ fairy tales, it’s heartbreaking to see how women are constantly being sacrificed in stories. However, Axie Oh gives a spin to this sexist plotline.
When Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village is chosen, Mina throws herself into the water instead, to protect her brother who loves Shim Cheong. She does not die though and instead falls into the Spirit Realm, where she encounters the Sea God, who turns out to be a boy in an enchanted sleep rather than a cruel deity. I know what you’re thinking at this moment. So, where did the past sacrifices go? That’s most likely the work of the three beings who steal Mina’s voice. With the help of friends she meets underwater, she must figure out how to regain her voice and save the Sea God in 30 days or risk becoming a spirit herself.
Taiwo Balogun is a blogger and freelance writer who specializes in books and movies. Her writing has been featured in Marie Claire and Teen Vogue, among others. When she’s not creating content, you can find her on Twitter @alifestylenerd9 chatting about her latest read or the new TV series she’s binge-watching