I got the distinct impression a quarter of the way through this book that this is what Twilight from Edward’s point of view should have been like. Brooding mythical creature with angst? Check. Love interest that they’re drawn to for reasons they don’t understand? Check. Laws that are meant to keep them apart? Check. All that and more are in The Siren.
What enticed me to first pick up this book is that it’s about sirens. So, yes, it does seem like the YA genre has exhausted all the usual creatures (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.) and has reached the bottom of the barrel. However, The Siren isn’t composed of tired, old mythology and creates a fresh new origin for creatures that are mostly remembered for their brief cameo in The Odyssey.
The story is told from Kahlen’s point of view, a ninety-nine year old siren who has served the Ocean since she was nearly drowned along with her family in the 1930s. She lives with her Siren sisters—Aisling, Miaka, and Elizabeth—in Florida and lives her days among humans in silence. A single word from a siren is fatal for any human who hears it, and it’s this silence that divides Kahlen and her sisters and from other humans. Most of her days are spent at the university library researching the lives of the people she’s drowned. It’s a big list because every now and again the Ocean (her mother/friend/enemy/boss) demands that the sirens sink ships filled with humans so that she can sustain life on earth. It’s a scary symbiotic relationship but, hey, it works.
As per usual in YA, Kahlen meets a boy named Akinli and they immediately click. However, because wives and mothers can’t be sirens and the Ocean would kill her if she found out, Kahlen runs away from love and tries to escape. But a series of events leads Kahlen back to the only thing she’s ever really wanted, and she has to decide between her heart and her promise.
I really do think that the angst and self-loathing that Kahlen feels is played really well. It ages her in a way that makes her feel inhuman, cursed, but it also makes her really relatable as a character. After all, a book about a siren who didn’t feel remorse for the thousands of lives she’d taken wouldn’t be as easy to get into. The depression she falls into about halfway through the book is believable for anyone who’s had heartbreak because of making the ‘right’ choice.
The supporting characters are all memorable, distinct, and fleshed out really well. The siren sisters play off of Kahlen in different ways, but there is a definite feeling of love between all of them. They are, for better or worse, a family. Aisling is the secretive, solitary siren who lives apart from the others—one whose service with the Ocean is nearing its end. Miaka is a talented artist whose gift helps supports the sirens various moves around the world. Elizabeth loves shopping, partying, and looking good, but she has the biggest heart. Padma, the newest siren, is full of impotent rage that the reader will feel just as much and breaks your heart.
The two other major players are the Ocean and Akinli. The Ocean is exactly what the name implies—She is every single ocean, every lake, every source of water that doesn’t come from the ground. It’s this godlike personification that make the “character” seem fresh and new even though mother who doesn’t understand her daughters has been done a million times before. At the same time, her genuine love and dependence on Kahlen is touching even at her harshest moments. I think that Cass did a great job of capturing the essence of the Ocean: mysterious, temperate, generous, and ever-hungry.
Akinli isn’t your typical YA romance interest since he’s out of high school and fairly independent. (He’s definitely not a Bella). The initial bonding between him and Kahlen is especially sweet and he never comes across as creepy for being nice to a girl who can’t talk. He is genuine in everything he does, and is likeable even though we actually don’t spend much of the narrative with him. However, as many people have pointed out, the “insta-love” between Akinli and Kahlen can be a bit hard to believe (especially since many YA novels now focus on building relationships realistically), but The Siren is more like a fairy tale where that kind of thing happens all the time.
The plot mostly revolves around Kahlen and Akinli’s love story, but there is also mystery, revenge, joy, and heartbreak from other characters and subplots as well. Overall, Cass does an excellent job of expanding the siren mythology, creating distinct and likeable characters, and making a “monster” more human than many before her. The love story is almost secondary to the inner journey that Kahlen goes through as she learns to forget, forgive, and move on.
If you’re looking for a new creature feature in the YA genre then this is it. The romance is real and doesn’t revolve around the mythical nature of one of the people in it as most other novels do. It definitely sets a new tone for YA novels that deal with species-type barriers, and it’s a book that I recommend.