Book Review: “Wet Magic” by E. Nesbit

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The last children’s fantasy novel by Edith Nesbit follows the adventures of five children who, thanks to a poem that is actually a magic spell, meet a mermaid. Francis and Bernard and their sisters Mavis and Kathleen join Reuben, a runaway from a gypsy circus, in setting free a captured mermaid who would otherwise die in captivity.

Their reward is a voyage to the Mer Kingdom and the delights of the bottom of the sea. But they soon make a mistake that “lets the sea in” and leads to a war between the Mer People and the deep, dark Under Folk. The children join in the fight, in which many different kinds of valiant sea creatures take part, and which also involves good and bad characters out of a magical library. (Some of this will seem familiar to readers of The Magic City.)

But then Francis, Bernard, Mavis, and Kathleen are taken prisoner by the Under Folk, and their adventures take a marvelous new turn. Memories lost and regained, long-lost loved ones discovered, making war, making peace, and a bit of romance come together. The children cope with becoming invisible, riding sea horses, and wearing fish-like tails. They spend time in prison, they visit a museum, and they figure out how to get back to their own world again.

Meanwhile, Nesbit’s wit lampoons (or should I say, harpoons?) the stupefying effects of certain books or the characters in them, the possibility of “straight talk” with kings and queens, and the accuracy of what they tell you in historical museums. The lightheartedness of the book’s humor combines with the seriousness of its adventure to create a compelling and magical adventure for young minds and hearts.

Having trouble finding E. Nesbit’s books in print? Try a used book dealer or your library, or visit New York’s Books of Wonder, a “bookstore specializing in both new and old imaginative books for children”-who produced the beautiful edition of this book that I have. They’re available online too.