[ARC] Breakwater: Catherine Jones Payne

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

I finished reading Breakwater last night and I’m still not exactly sure what I think of it. I keep oscillating between 2 and 3 stars because there were parts of the book that I really enjoyed, but then there were an equal number of parts that I just… didn’t find interesting at all.
Let’s start with the cover, though. The cover is gorgeous, A++. It looks like it’s supposed to depict Jade, the main character, who’s described as having fuchsia hair and dark skin. It’s really gorgeous, and I know that they say to never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover but I don’t think anyone really listens to that rule anymore lol. So yeah, I approve of the artwork.

Now onto the actual story.
The writing, I noticed, is really, really… jerky? Transitions from chapter to chapter are sometimes super sudden, so you’re left grasping at straws like– what. what just happened. For example: (I’m not tagging this as a spoiler because we all know, from the description, that Jade’s fiance kills a naiad) Chapter 1 consists of Jade and her friend Rhea getting all dolled up to go to her future in-laws house for a party. The mood is super light, super fun, Rhea’s talking about how she wants to get in with the King’s youngest son, so she’s gotta make him jealous by flirting with other handsome mermen and Jade’s like “oh Rhea, u a riot girl” and Jade’s quietly admiring Tor and wondering what jewelry she should wear and you know, the mood is generally, super happy.
Then the chapter ends with: “When I reached the fire coral, I stopped short and locked eyes with Tor. My whole body trembled. In one arm, he held the dead body of a red-haired naiad girl.”
This would be a super, super cool transition– if the next chapter didn’t start off so stilted. Jade immediately starts freaking out and accuses Tor of killing her, and all of a sudden she’s antagonizing the crap out of him even though in the previous chapter, she kept singing praises in his name. It just seemed really strange to me that Jade would immediately jump to the conclusion that he murdered her. And maybe, as they explain later on in the book, there’s good reason for her theory: after all, most mer hate the naiads. But they don’t explain that in the beginning of the book (there’s something about how they live in “uneasy coexistence” but I didn’t think that would point to outright murdering each other), so it’s just a super confusing interaction. And, I mean, she’s not wrong. Tor did kill the girl. But their confrontation scene and her subsequent panic happens so fast that it’s kind of funny, in a bizarre, what-just-happened kind of way.
This sudden change in atmosphere from really sunny to really awful and depressing happens consistently throughout the book.
Also, Jade’s everywhere. She has a tail and they live underwater, so she swims to get to places, which means really fast scene changes where she’s in the city, then suddenly she’s near the breakwater horizon, then suddenly she’s with the naiad, then suddenly she’s at the palace. These journeys are encompassed in maybe one sentence; it ends up being jarring to read.
I mean, I kind of imagine Jade like
description
GOTTA GO FAST

One of the better things about this story is that it introduces an enormous kingdom with a lot of unrest. I really, really wish that Ms. Payne had gone further in her description of this world, or tried world-building just a little more before she jumped into the story. I think that the way that this novel is constructed, it reads like a companion book to a previous story that really sets up the Thessalonike nation.
Like the naiad. Who are they? What do they look like? I still don’t know if the naiad walk on two legs or if they have tails, because it’s never stated in the book. Do they look like humans, as opposed to the mer with their tails and their rainbow hair? How does the water-casting thing work when they all live… underwater? And how on earth do they attack people with their water-casting? Do they make whirlpools and send mermaids spinning away from them? Can they actually like impale someone with a stick of water? Why isn’t this talked about?

Another thing that I noticed: Jade is the only dynamic character in this book. She goes through some personality changes and has some realizations, but everyone else is so… their personalities are really… consistent. Cleo is just as businesslike and cutting in the beginning as she is in the end, whether Jade, her daughter, is getting engaged, is getting almost-murdered-by-an-angry-mob, or is being a brat in general. She never loses her cool, which is admirable, but it also makes her unrelatable. That goes for a lot of the cast: Aunt Junia, who comes off as always kind of worried by ready for adventure. Rhea, who is vapid and spoiled. Kora, who is anxious and maybe a little naive. They never change, throughout the story.
The one thing that Jade keeps constant is her spur-of-the-moment decisions. I think the one decision that she put some thought into, and that was after nearly getting the life choked out of her by Tor, was refusing to accept his incoming marriage proposal on behest of the king. Jade doesn’t listen to anyone. She just goes and goes and goes and goes. That girl doesn’t stop going and doing things without thinking first.

A lot of characters are introduced suddenly, then are taken away for long periods of time. I personally never grew attached to the guard, Maximus, this mer named Cassian who’s introduced later and shows up once or twice throughout the course of the book, Aunt Junia, who’s Jade’s aunt and confidante, Kora, or Pippa’s (the sister of the naiad that was killed) band of friends.
Ms. Payne fleshes these characters out enough so that you think they’re going to be important, but they only show up when it’s convenient to the story. I guess it’s like that with most characters in novels, but it felt super overt in this one. They’re just confusing additions to the plot and I almost wonder if some of them were necessary. Maximus, especially, though he made more sense later: it seemed like he was SO fleshed out for only appearing in like one or two scenes, but then by the end of the book, with Alexander’s departure… that’s when you’re like oh. Duh. He’s the next love interest.

Speaking of unnecessary characters, Alexander, the merman who lives in the naiad district and turns out to be some long-lost school-kid crush that Jade had years ago, is the most irrelevant character in this story. I don’t even know why he was necessary to add. He’s Jade’s love interest, but the story could have functioned entirely without him. In fact, it would have been ten times better without him, because he’s introduced randomly, feels like he’s forced into the narrative, and does nothing but contribute to the damsel-in-distress trope that pervades the story. The romance came out of nowhere. Total left-field. Jade could be a seriously formidable character on her own, but I feel like the love story was contrived to humanize her, or something, or make her seem a little more vulnerable, which Ms. Payne already does a good job of. I don’t know why there’s a love story at all because it’s seriously the worst part of this book… I would have given it 3.5 stars if not for Alexander.

Lots of interesting situations occur in this book, but the introspection and emotional reactions of the characters to these situation– don’t exist. It’s a lot of, as I said before, action. Jade is doing this. Jade is saying that. Jade is angry because of this. Jade is hopeless because of this. But we learn everything from dialogue; there’s no looking into her persona, as you would with another character who has more internal monologue.
I was going to say that it seems like she’s always being saved, but that’s not entirely fair: she does save herself from Cassian when she thinks he’s about to attack her, and she *sort of* saves herself from Tor… although that part was infuriating. Jade, I know that your father was some kind of great, forgiving martyr figure, but she was going to let Tor murder her, even though she had a blade, because she would rather die than hate, even a skub like Tor. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?! She literally has a dagger in her hand, she can stab him and get away, but she remembers that her father told her to always be brave? That he knew he might die any day, while working for the emancipation of the naiad people? How does that pertain to the situation at all?? That scene was so infuriating omg.

There is one thing, though: the trial that takes place for a third of the book, which pits Jade’s family against Tor’s, was really exciting. I thought it was well-written, emotions are running high, there’s betrayal, and it’s just a fun read. This was the part of the book that I enjoyed the most. It also wasn’t stretched out for too long, which ensured that the reader didn’t get bored. And there are some really good quotes in the book. Two in particular that I liked were:

“Don’t make me out to be a hero. I don’t have the energy for that kind of responsibility.” which Jade throws pretty resentfully at her mother and Pippa, post-trial. It makes her seem more like, you know, a seventeen-year-old who’s accusing her ex-fiance of murder. It humanizes her.

Then there’s “It’s easy to move on when things are so bad that you can’t stand them anymore. It’s harder when they’re just mediocre.” which is Pippa’s explanation as to why the naiad won’t leave this kingdom that hates them so much. The naiad have a really interesting backstory. I wish that we got more history on them, because they’re a very strong presence in the book.

Okay.
In conclusion:
This book gets a lot better during the latter half. I think that Ms. Payne was more comfortable with the world she had built by this part, because it reads a lot easier. Jade is an interesting main character, and the whole undercurrent (ha. undercurrent) of politics and manipulation that makes up this story is really intriguing. I love that there’s so much complication over this supposedly easily solved dilemma. I love that the King isn’t this figure of absolute authority, and there are rioting naiads, anti-monarchists, and jilted aristocrats/Mer Noble Guard that are threatening his power. I love that Jade’s tangled up in this, and she does a pretty good job of making the right choice.

I think that the idea behind the story was fantastic– but the execution wasn’t.

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