I was a huge fan of DN Bryn’s Our Bloody Pearl (as you can see from my review!), so when I saw they were returning to the world of These Treacherous Tides for the start of a new series, I was delighted!
Book: Once Stolen by DN Bryn
Publication date: 27th July 2021
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by the author, but I also preordered the paperback for myself with my own money. Either way, all opinions are my own.
Content warnings (from the author): Cultural ableism, adolescent abandonment, two instances of animal injury and death, accidental house fire, kidnapping, secondary character drinking alcohol including non-violent drunkenness.
Return to Our Bloody Pearl‘s steampunk-inspired world of merfolk in this fun, fast-paced adventure with a hate-to-love romance, a boat-load of sass, and even more heart.
No one with half a brain would rob the jungle’s most notorious energy cartel. The vibrations of their power-producing stones are the only thing that calms the mer-snake Cacao’s agonizing sensory condition though—and after being banished from his homeland swamps for similar thefts, he’s desperate.
When his attempt fails stunningly, a chaotic escape leaves him chained to a cartel prisoner: a self-proclaimed hero with a hidden stash of ignits so large, Cacao would never need to steal again. He’s determined to get his hands on it, even if it means guiding her home straight through the mist-laden and monster-filled swamp that exhaled him, with scheming poachers and a desperate cartel leader on their tail.
But the selfish and the self-righteous can only flee together for so long before something snaps…
You don’t need to have read Our Bloody Pearl to jump into this – while there are references (and it was lovely to see cameos from a couple of OBP characters!), this is an entirely new story, so it doesn’t matter if you start here or there. Once Stolen is way more action-packed than Our Bloody Pearl, which surprised me at first as I was expecting another quiet book. While there are plenty of lovely character moments (as I’ll discuss in a bit), this is much more of an adventure tale, as Cacao, a boiuna, and his reluctant ally Thais, a human, race towards a cache of treasure while being chased by a vicious cartel. The pace and the energy are high, and the story drags you along at a rollicking speed – I read this pretty much in one sitting, as I just kept thinking ‘one more chapter’! The jungle setting is unusual and intriguing, and so well-described; there’s a real sense of motion as the characters travel, and you feel like you’re right there with them.
As I’ve come to expect from DN Bryn, this is a joyfully diverse book in terms of gender, sexuality, and disability. The world is queernorm, and I loved seeing characters deliberately, but casually, introduce themselves with their pronouns. There are multiple nonbinary characters (each of them with a different identity, from ‘all genders’ to ‘no thanks’, which is something I’ve not seen depicted with such nuance before), including Thais, Cacao’s eventual love interest. There’s also excellent representation of Deaf (again, with different depictions across multiple characters!) and autistic characters – these are facets of people, and not their only qualities, but they’re seamlessly and realistically woven into their characters and into the worldbuilding in a way that is wonderful to read. I loved that pretty much all of the book’s conversations took place in sign language, with the world just being set up that way. There is a major subplot I won’t spoil about Cacao’s experiences with a lack of accommodation for his sensory needs, so all I’ll say is that I thought this was depicted sensitively and extremely well. I could rave for ages about just how beautifully this world is constructed to include these things, but I want to let you discover it for yourself!
Cacao’s character development in this book is so beautifully drawn. At the beginning of the book, he’s selfish and aggressive, and although it’s clear that this is the result of trauma and rejection, he’s honestly not very likeable! But his voice is utterly compelling from the get-go, and I loved him, even if he wasn’t always very nice. There’s a great blog post on the author’s site where they discuss how important it is to have an autistic character be allowed to have these flaws and how they’re tied into trauma (and eventual healing), which is a really interesting read. But even if you go into this book cold, one of my favourite things is seeing prickly characters warm up when they’re shown kindness and love, and it’s Cacao’s friendships with Thais and other characters that show him that maybe he doesn’t have to be an island any more. I found myself grinning every time Cacao realised he was doing something unselfish, to his horror! The rest of the cast is brilliant, too – I loved boiuna Fern in particular, with her combination of creepy hobbies and sweet personality, and the budding romance between Cacao and Thais is so cute and fun (if you like affectionate insults, you’ll be in heaven!) It sounds twee to use the term ‘the power of friendship’, but this is such a gorgeous depiction of how much belonging matters. As in Our Bloody Pearl, Once Stolen excels at showing how ‘people’ and ‘home’ have only a blurry line between them.
I’m going to be good and stop writing, or I’ll end up spoiling everything in my haste to tell you everything I loved about this! But if you like your fantasy fun, adventurous, and fundamentally inclusive, this is a must read. The main plot is satisfyingly tied up, but I cannot wait to read the next book in the series and find out what happens to the threads left dangling – this is such a lovely world. Five out of five cats!