“Riven could never look at the sea without thinking of drowning. She only had to catch a glimpse of waves, and her heart would constrict, blood running cold and breath rushing from her lungs. Facing her worst fears never got easier, though she’d told herself it would for years.”
In RoAnna Sylver’s dystopian, moonless world, Riven is a lonely sea-witch who every night, with the help of a shell and a song, calls in the tides, a task she both resents and can’t avoid performing. When she finds a famished, emaciated stranger at her door about to eat her stew (one of the few joys she still affords herself), she’s at once hopeful and terrified—especially when she realizes that the stranger is a merperson, “a creature from the deep.” And so begins the story of the witch and the mermaid who heal each other and fall in love.
While I was reading Moon-Bright Tides, and the unfolding of the delicate relationship between Riven and Moonbright, I couldn’t help but think of how gentle it felt. But the gentleness I experienced stemmed primarily from Sylver’s way with words and the genuine affection they seem to feel for their characters, and which these characters grow to feel for one another.
In actuality, the background to the narrative is rather brutal—there’s no moon and humans are to blame for it; both Riven and Moonbright have lost their families, the former literally and horrifically, the latter via banishment—and to me Moon-Bright Tides felt very much like a story of multiple and different kind of absences and losses, which are anything but gentle themes; from Riven’s and Moonbright’s missing families and the missing moon that can no longer fulfill its duties, from empty stomachs and empty hearts, to all the aspects of Riven’s and Moonbright’s personalities that left them wanting in the eyes of their societies/families.
There’s both a sense of desperation and of recognition between Riven and Moonbright; they are lonely, and in a way they’ve always been, because loneliness always lurks around when one feels like they don’t belong.
Their romance is an improved, more balanced version of the hurt/comfort trope (an oft eroticized trope, particularly in m/m romance, that I personally dislike): they are both hurt, they both need to heal, they take comfort in each other’s presence—they nourish and nurture each other, in a literal (Riven’s will continue to cook and share her food with Moonbright) and an emotional way.
In one of the story’s most lovely moments, Riven and Moonbright are discussing their names. Moonbright’s name is unpronounceable by humans, so Riven asks her if it means anything, to which Moonbright replies that all names do:
“I don’t think mine does. ‘Riven’ is almost a word, like ‘river,’ but it isn’t, not if there’s an ’n’ there instead of an ‘r.’ They’re nice sounds, I guess, but together they don’t mean anything.”
“They do,” the mermaid disagreed, a bit more emphatically than her last statement. “They mean you.”
This exchange works both to underline how much Riven hasn’t had the chance to come into her own or to recognize her own value yet, and as another reminder of what’s no longer there, more absences that needs to be addressed.
The at-this-point still “nameless” Moonbright manages to explain that her name means “[...] The way that happens, the bright against the surface. But from the moon. When it was here.”
The act of giving someone a name has always struck me as an act of ownership (I first dipped my feet into the romance genre via historical novels with cis male/cis female pairings, where heroes very often, for no reason whatsoever, decide to start calling heroines with names not their own, usually after some goddess’s—an act the romantic resonance of which is, I’ll admit, lost on me), so I read this exchange with some trepidation, but Sylver handles it in a way that to me felt respectful and affecting. There is no assigning someone a name which isn't theirs, there’s no trying to own them; it’s a necessary act of translation.
As impressive is Sylver’s skill in fully developing in the span of 30 pages not only the story, characters and their relationship (with each other and with their surroundings), but the world they inhabit. As a reader, the short form can feel the most rewarding but also the least accessible, and fantasy as a genre in particular seems like a tricky one to tackle for a short story (I don’t know how many times I’ve closed a fantasy book because of the amount of confusing world-building info-dump condensed in the first few paragraphs).
But from the very first pages, this moonless world is very clearly and assuredly drawn; it’s easy to picture, simultaneously haunting and magical. It’s also a lesson, as most dystopian stories are. It’s almost ecological storytelling at its core, with humans making a mess of things, and the consequences of their behavior having a very real impact on the Earth and all its species.
The experience of reading Moon-Bright Tides was akin (if saying it a bit on the nose) to being gently rocked by waves; dreamy and lulling, but one is always fully conscious that what lies underneath the placid surface can be both beautiful and terrible. It’s also a quiet, healing love story which should be perfect for anyone looking for a short, sweet f/f romance.
“If you ever fear the water again, remember that I’m in it. And know I'll always come back to you—because the tide has to come back in.”