From Disney’s animated Ariel to older stories of mer-creatures from the deep, we’ve long been fascinated with the mysterious mythology of the mermaid. With the new live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” swimming our way on May 26, we swung our net and searched the depths of bookshelves for tails (forgive me), similar to the epic story. The book world is awash with seafaring characters, including an updated tale of Ariel to swashbuckling pirate queens and more.
The original story of “The Little Mermaid” came from Hans Christian Andersen, and he likely found his inspiration from even older myths. Mermaids and adventures in the deep blue sea have long beguiled and intrigued me. In Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid,” she has the same desire as Disney’s finned princess to become human after falling in love with a mortal prince, except the endings are considerably different. The mermaid doesn’t marry the prince and is rescued by her sisters in the end.
In the animated Disney movie from the 1980s, Ariel is a bubbly idealist not nearly as apprehensive as she should be at Ursula’s bargain. One song, and she’s ready to risk losing vital parts of herself for a chance at love. But from the initial glimpses of the upcoming live-action film directed by Rob Marshall, perhaps we’ll be given a more nuanced and complex version of the characters.
In an interview with Insider, the stunning Halle Bailey, who plays the live-action Ariel, said viewers would be given a “deeper dive” into shaping her character. In addition, Alan Menken, who composed music for the 1989 animated movie as well as the 2023 remake, remarked to Vanity Fair that some of the lyrics to the classic songs had been updated to reflect a more empowered version of women in the story.
From the casting to the modern updates, these are welcome changes for a new generation of fans who can fall in love and become a part of Ariel’s world. This list contains 14 books that are either loosely based on, inspired by, or share similar fishy themes with “The Little Mermaid,” from Disney’s version to the more sinister sirens of older folklore. The list is a compilation of adult and YA titles with splashing reviews and salty pages.
’The Little Mermaid: Against The Tide’ By J. Elle
New York Times best-selling author J. Elle’s original novel “The Little Mermaid: Against the Tide” — inspired by the 2023 live-action film — is now officially within the Disney canon. This is a Young Adult fantasy, and although there are some adult themes, it’s age appropriate for pre-teens. When Ariel’s mother dies, she and her seven sisters find themselves emotionally detached and estranged from one another. But being the daughters of King Triton, duty calls, and on this year’s Coral Moon celebration, the sisters will attend reunited. For Ariel, the event will be particularly monumental: Since turning 15, she will be granted her own ocean territory, which makes her the Protector of Carinae. On the eve of the ceremony, Mala, one of Ariel’s sisters, is abducted, and a cryptic note written on seaweed is left in her place. J. Elle’s version of Ariel’s life is more mature and complicated; the young mermaid experiences grief and lives in a world that feels less boisterous but considerably lonelier and more dangerous than the animated Disney version. J. Elle’s book is also a much richer experience, and if this is the Ariel we meet in Disney’s new movie, then there’s plenty more plot for fans to get caught in.
‘To Kill A Kingdom’ By Alexandra Christo
Alexandro Christo’s international bestseller, “To Kill A Kingdom,” took inspiration from “The Little Mermaid” but is a much darker and very loose young adult retelling of the tale. This is an epic, cutthroat book swimming with handsome pirates and terrifying sirens. Princess Lira is a femme-fatal of the sea known in the human world as the Prince’s Bane due to all the hearts she’s ripped from royal chests. But Lira’s life drastically changes when she disobeys her mother, the Sea Queen. She is punished, stripped of her identity, and forced into a human form. Left floating in the sea, Lira is rescued by a prince, except this one has a reputation as gruesome as her own. Prince Elian hunts sirens, believing it’s his calling in life; unbeknownst to him; he’s just picked up the most lethal of them all. A riotous read full of fun and a well-done enemies-to-lovers trope.
‘A Song Below Water’ By Bethany C. Morrow
Bethany C. Morrow’s “A Song Below Water” modernizes mythical creatures of the sea into politically and socially relevant characters through a vivid fantasy. Morrow pulls in topics of racism and social justice within a captivating fantasy YA story about two best friends, Tavia and Effie, who are also mythical beings. Morrow’s entrancing story about self-discovery, acceptance, and friendship is set against the challenges young Black women all too frequently face today. Tavia and Effie live in modern-day Portland and rely on one another for support; each deal with their own familial issues and secrets. Effie has conflicts with literal demons, and Tavia has a big secret: She’s a siren with intense magical powers. So when one of Tavia’s fashion idols is murdered, and it’s revealed that she, too, is a siren, the hold on Tavia’s power becomes impossible to contain.
The ‘Crescent City’ Series By Sarah J. Maas
A blend of high fantasy in an urban world, Sarah J. Maas’ “Crescent City” series is an intense and detailed ride through multiple plots and worlds. In the first book, “House of Earth and Blood,” we meet Bryce Quinlin, a half-fae grappling with the trauma of the brutal murder of her best friend, Danika, who happened to be the granddaughter to the Werewolf Prime and alpha to the Pack of Devils. Bryce struggles to continue with her life and passes the time by working at Griffin Antiquities in Crescent City using various coping mechanisms. But when she’s pulled back into the murders by the literal angels who guard the city, she’s considered a possible suspect, or at the very least assumed accessory in Danika’s murder. As a result, her life begins a rapid spiral into underground dealings and conspiracies. But it’s in book two, “House of Sky and Breath,” when things get fishy. There’s an entire underwater world of mermaids in the second book with their court of political and violent mechanisms, with Tharion Ketos being at the center of the mermaids’ storyline. Tharion is a “merman” who can shift into human form for periods of time and Captain of Intelligence for The River Queen, a volatile and sadistic ruler. He finds himself embroiled with Bryce and her Crescent City friends when the Queen sends him on a secret mission, ultimately leading Tharion to make a big choice. The third book in Crescent City, “House of Flame and Shadow,” will be released in January by Bloomsbury.
’The Aisling Sea’ Series By Vanessa Rasanen
If it’s the sea you’re craving, then Vanessa Rasanen’s “Aisling Sea” series is a smashing book to add to your #TBR list. It’s a swashbuckling read full of snarky and sexy pirates, plenty of rum and vengeful sirens. “On These Black Sands” follows the pirate Declan McCallagh, a deliciously morally gray and sardonic captain, and Aoife Cascade, an heir on the run with a very big secret. Despite being an heir, Aoife fears for her life after discovering a dark secret about the matriarchal society she lives in. The pair are then forced together when Aoife stows away on Declan’s ship, once discovering the Captain plans to drop her off at the next port but then realizes Aoife is the key to his own freedom. Aoife makes a deal with Declan in exchange for her safety; she’ll help him find an enchanted dagger he’s been desperate to own. As they face challenges from those trying to stop them, they also navigate their complicated trust issues and growing attraction. This is a delightful and engrossing new adult fantasy. Although book one is full of political intrigue, adventure and captivating characters, it’s in book two that Ransanen’s story truly takes the helm.
‘The Sea Witch’ (Wicked Villains Series) By Katee Robert
Katee Robert is no stranger to taking tales of old and completely reinventing them. Her Dark Olympus series focuses on the Greeks, whereas her Wicked Villains series pulls from the realm of fairy tales. “The Sea Witch” does cross into both worlds and is a loose reimagining of “The Little Mermaid,” but with multiple love interests. Zurielle, an Olympian princess and daughter of Triton, is willing to sacrifice anything to save Alaric, the man she loves who was exiled from her life. She agrees to terms set by Ursa, known as the Sea Witch, who was also exiled from Olympus by Zurielle’s father, but plans to reunite the pair. Very little is visible above the surface, and there are twists and manipulations, so we’ll keep things vague. Robert loves a good villain and, better yet, convincing readers that the heroes you’ve previously loved aren’t as noble as once believed. Her stories are filled with complicated and flawed characters navigating their sources of trauma, and “The Sea Witch” is no exception. They are also filled with plenty of spice and Robert’s tongue-in-cheek humor. Robert is well-known in the romance book genre for writing adult content; this story is not for children.
‘Chlorine’ By Jade Song
With a captivating first line — “forget what you know about mermaids” — Jade Song’s debut novel, “Chlorine,” is full of quick intrigue. This story is told from the point of view of Ren Yu, a competitive high school swimmer who relentlessly pushes her body in the hopes of being awarded an athletic scholarship. Ren’s life is not unlike many teenagers; she’s dealing with puberty, budding relationships and complex family dynamics. From the book’s start, Ren narrates the story as an adult, so we already know that the once-human girl is now a living mermaid. With the passing of time, this version of Ren is severely detached from the human world, disenchanted and even angry at how poorly the younger human Ren was treated. We learn how Ren’s meticulously scheduled and over-achieving younger self experiences several failings which cause a mental break in the young girl. At times incredibly grotesque, this book is not for the faint of heart. If Ariel found her freedom with a pair of legs, Ren found hers away from the humans in chlorine-spiked waters.
‘The Isles Of The Gods’ By Amie Kaufman
“The Isles of the Gods” is an action-forward fantasy series infused with magic, romance and intricate mythology. The New York Times-bestselling author of the Aurora Cycle series and the Illuminae Files series’ newest book pulls you into a world of gangsters’ dens, forgotten temples and the high seas. This story has multiple points of view that can seem a little daunting at times, but the primary focus is on Sailor Selly and Prince Leander. Selly’s father recently deserted her, and she’s determined to head north to find him. But, before she can leave, her ship sets sail carrying a secret cargo, Prince Leander. He wants to travel to the Isles of the Gods and perform a ritual sacrifice to appease a slumbering deity, something he’s been late to do. All the while, there’s a war brewing that is more than just a mortal issue. Fair warning: The first book in the series ends on a gutting cliffhanger.
‘The Hurricane Wars’ By Thea Guanzon
Guanzon’s spellbinding fantasy romance trilogy is set in a magical Southeast Asia-inspired world ravaged by storms. Guanzon’s debut already has a bevy of bestselling writers praise, including Hannah Whitten, Katee Robert, Ali Hazlewood and others, and it’s not surprising in the least. “The Hurricane Wars” is a lush and exquisitely detailed book with enemies to lovers, breathtaking worlds and intrigue. In Guanzon’s debut, we meet Talasyn, whose entire life has been influenced by the Hurricane Wars. She grew up an orphan in a nation under siege by the deadly Night Emperor, and it’s among the opposition fighters that Talasyn finds her found family not by blood but through friendship. Except even to them, she’s hiding a secret: light magic courses through her veins, a blazing power believed to have been wiped out years ago that can cut through the Night Empire’s shadows. Meanwhile, the emperor’s only son Alaric is tasked with finding and eliminating any threats to his father’s rule. When he discovers the greatest threat is within Talasyn, he aims to kill her. But their powers clash in a peculiar and possibly fated way, altering both paths. Simply unputdownable.
‘Skin Of The Sea’ By Natasha Bowen
This remarkable fantasy debut blends West African history and Yoruban mythology to create a new fairy tale where a Black mermaid challenges the gods themselves. A New York Times bestseller, Natasha Bowen’s “Skin of the Sea” is an enrapturing and well-detailed young adult fantasy novel. With a mix of “The Little Mermaid” and “Children of Blood and Bone,” this is a must-read mermaid tale about Simidele, a Mami Wata, whose role is to collect souls that pass in the sea and bless them to return to Olodumare. Simidele, while searching for souls to collect, chooses to save a drowning boy who fell from a slaver’s ship. It’s this choice that she unwittingly breaks an ancient rule that could possibly end all of Mami Wata. To rectify her choice, she must embark on a quest with the boy named Kola to save her world and his.
‘Daughter Of The Pirate King’ By Tricia Levenseller
For fans of Disney’s Jack Sparrow, meet Alosa, the 17-year-old daughter of an infamous Pirate King, who’s a daring redhead and true pirate in. In “Daughter of the Pirate King,” Alosa is a princess and a revered captain of her own ship, with a mostly woman crew. The young captain is calculating and battle-ready, keeping a secret that allows her the ultimate power over any man that dares to fight her. She’s sent on a mission by her father, the Pirate King, to retrieve pieces from a legendary treasure map, which he believes resides in the ship of unfriendly Captain Draxen. Alosa, ever the schemer, realizes to be taken aboard Draxen’s ship, he’ll need to believe he’s captured her. Delighted in his supposed triumph, Draxen sends a ransom message to the Alosa’s father and places her aboard his ship under the watchful eye of Draxen’s handsome brother, Riden. Alosa might have been prepared for Draxen’s stupidity, but she wasn’t fully equipped for Riden’s charms. Determined to find the map, she sneaks in and out of her cells. She uses her powerful secret to achieve her ends when she fails to locate the map easily. However, the waters get murky when emotional connections between Alosa and Riden are formed, and in the concluding duology, we learn just how fantastical this red-headed pirate truly is.
‘Deep As The Sky, Red As The Sea’ By Rita Chang-Eppig
Several debut novels are on this list, and “Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea” is just as worthy of all the praise Rita Chang-Eppig’s first is receiving. Inspired by the notorious career of one of history’s most successful pirates, the book begins with the heroine, Shek Yeung, watching her husband die during a failed attack on a Portuguese ship. Her husband’s death gives her a devastating and world-shifting blow because not only does she realize she loved him, but it also puts her in a dangerous position in the Red Banner Fleet. She commands her men on the ship, but when her husband died, the rule is passed to her late husband’s male protégé, Cheung Po. Yeung worries Po will take away the control she has, so she convinces him to marry her and even agrees to bear him a son. It’s drastic but might unite the warring groups in their fleet. All the while, there’s a rumor the emperor has hired a specialist to completely end the threat of piracy on his seas. Bloody battles ensue while we sail along with Yeung in a clever story that explores gender roles, power and even love.
‘House Of Salt And Sorrows’ By Erin A. Craig
Erin A. Craig’s YA gothic fantasy “House of Salt and Sorrows” is a gothic reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Like “The Little Mermaid,” it deals with themes of family bonds, sisterhood, immortality and violence. However, Craig’s update from Grimm’s tale is a much darker story with horror elements and is set in the manor Highmoor by the sea, where the 12 cursed sisters reside — four of which have already died. In Craig’s chilling book, the octopus bathtub scene is particularly frightening for anyone intrigued and haunted by the lure of the sea. This tale is full of curious deaths, curses and dark magic and opens with a funeral. But in lieu of a traditional mourning period, the sisters are sent out to a strange ball to dance every night. The only sister disenchanted by the nightly events and who suspects foul play is Annaleigh. She becomes increasingly suspicious that her sister’s deaths were no accidents and of who and what attends the nightly balls. The ending might seem obvious to some, but it’s still a tingling and chilling read until the end. Deadline also reported that 1212 Entertainment, the studio behind “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” will adapt the novel.
‘House Of Marionne’ By J. Elle
Elle’s “The Little Mermaid: Against the Tide” is on this list as well, and although the “House of Marionne” is not a retelling of Ariel, it does have themes of adventure, found family, self-acceptance and of a young woman’s determination in an unknown and hostile world. This hotly anticipated new fantasy modern-day romance YA promises magic and intrigue within dazzling and lethal worlds. The series is about a glamorous magical world of social elites, forbidden love, and dark magic that could destroy everything. It is touted as a must-read for authors frequently mentioned alongside Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo. Quell has lived in hiding, where she and her mother have fled from city to city. At 17, she has a secret that keeps her and her mother running; she possesses deadly magic in her veins. But one day, she’ll have to stop running. To hide from an assassin closing in, Quell reluctantly enrolls in a debutante society of magical social elites called the Order. She can keep her magic hidden forever if she passes three rites of passage from the Order. But if she’s exposed, she’ll likely be killed. And during her training, Quell’s assigned tutor is also an assassin in training, Jordan, who proves to be a dangerous distraction. Forbidden love and hiding your true identity make “House of Marionne” a perfect read for romance fans. The publication date is Aug. 29.