Ariel becomes an unwilling hostess when Countess Oystera's daughter, Pearl, is invited to stay at the palace. Pearl is a perfectly-behaved young mermaid in front of adults, but when alone with Ariel she's bossy and self-centered. When Pearl stumbles upon Ariel playing around with human things, she decides to use this as blackmail material, getting Ariel to obey her every command and blaming her whenever things go wrong.
This kind of story where there's a character's nastiness is hidden is really frustrating, the more so when her nemesis is Ariel, who is such a strong character herself and only allows it to happen because of her fear of King Triton's reaction to her grotto. It is an interesting story though, especially when it's revealed that Pearl is so mean because she believes Ariel isn't a proper princess, and Ariel counters that princesses can not conform with court etiquette and enjoy adventures and getting dirty, thank you very much. The ending was also a surprise, because as these kinds of stories go I'd expected Pearl to learn her lesson, and although she does learn a lesson, there's a nifty sense of realism that these kinds of things don't always wrap up so neatly. I also really liked how Sebastian came to Ariel's rescue, being the first to suspect that something was up and believing that Ariel would never do all the things she'd been accused of.
As far as I can tell this isn't the same Pearl of the TV series, but the girls do go to Eel-ectric City, so there are some elements of the series in there. Ariel also has a merboy friend named Gil, who I'm not familiar with, but maybe he's in other books I haven't read yet.
There is a visitor in the royal palace: Queen Nefazia of the Indian Ocean, a childhood friend of King Triton. Nefazia is elegant and kind and interesting, with plenty of stories of the antics she and Triton got up to when they young. The only one not charmed by her is Aquata, who is convinced that Nefazia is there to seduce Triton and become their stepmother. Aquata teams up with her sisters to expose Nefazia and hopefully drive her away.
Aquata's reaction to Nefazia is a little harsh but overprotectiveness does run in the family (heh heh) and it's fun to see her, as the eldest, naturally taking a leadership role among the sisters. Aquata does have a point that a stepmother will change the status quo and possibly reduce Ariel's independence, but Ariel isn't Ariel if she doesn't have a mind of her own and develops her own opinion of Nefazia.
Nefazia herself is an interesting new character. Although Ariel has made merfolk friends who understand and support her fascination with humans, it's refreshing to meet one who is supportive of both Ariel's point of view and Triton's. Nefazia is an adventurous and curious kindred spirit of Ariel's, and thinks humans capable of greatness and beauty, but she's aware of how dangerous they can be, and is very gentle in reminding Ariel of the reason why it's better for merfolk to remain hidden. Nefazia is a mother figure Ariel deserves, and it's lovely even if fleeting.
If there's something Ursula excels at, it's manipulation. In this story she disguises herself as a beautiful young mermaid named Arsulu (yes, really) and befriends Adella. Ursula presents herself as a poor young mermaid searching for her lost love, and because of her sad story Adella invites her to live in the palace. Once there, one by one Ursula befriends the sisters, always having something sweet and supportive to say to each. In no time she's almost everyone's favourite, and starts sowing the seeds of discord and suspicion, planting notes and sabotaging gifts and starting a game of "She said/she said" to turn the sisters against each other. Ariel is bewildered when her sisters start fighting, and Ursula finds that the youngest sister isn't as easily fooled.
Ursula's ultimate goal is to distract Triton from his kingly duties to focus on his family. This makes her plan somewhat convoluted, since she has to learn what every single sister is up to and how best to manipulate them, but that makes it an undoubtedly evil plan since it seeks to gently rot the royal family from the inside out, instead of by force (which most of Atlantica/Triton's enemies tend to resort to). The idea is somewhat similar to the series episode In Harmony, but although the Evil Manta was scarier, Ursula's actions are more sinister because she's preying on very personal weaknesses and striking at a family from within. Just another day of work for the sea witch, I guess!
It's time for the annual Under the Sea musical gala, and Sebastian has a magnificent concert planned for the daughters of Triton. The sisters may enjoy performing but this time Sebastian's rehearsal schedule is positively brutal. When Sebastian receives an invitation for an upcoming jazz festival, the sisters all eagerly encourage Sebastian to go, insisting that Aquata can take charge without him.
With their newfound creative independence, the sisters wonder if they do something different for the gala this year, namely a play that bookworm Attina has written. Everyone loves the play, but Aquata is nervous about indirectly disappointing Triton and Sebastian, and what happens next is a creative split and turf war: Aquata leads Arista and Andrina in rehearsing for the concert, while Attina leads Adella and Alana in rehearsing for the play. As for Ariel, she participates in both, until she comes up with the solution to make everyone happy.
The personalities of Ariel's sisters get more of the limelight in this story, fleshing them out more as individuals with their differing personalities and opinions. Attina is literary and creative, Aquata has her anxieties about the responsibility of being the eldest, and Adella has her private ambitions that sway her from one production to the other. Another nice touch is Ariel's position as the peacemaker and game-changing pendulum, despite being the youngest and the one with the most unconventional hobbies of the lot. (Though maybe that's why she's better at challenging the status quo.)
Arista takes the spotlight in this, her own story. It's summer in Atlantica and King Triton is taking his daughters to the summer palace where they're to mingle with other undersea aristocrats. The other princesses are excited, especially at the prospect of meeting merboys, but Arista is bummed out because she'd hoped to go riding with her favourite sea-horse.
As it so happens, Arista does befriend a merboy at the summer palace: Dylan, a stable boy who is helping manage the royal sea-horse tables. The two are quickly taken with each other and a summer romance blooms. Arista, however, is conscious of the class divide between them and is reluctant to tell anyone about him. She especially believes that Triton would never approve, and hijinks ensue when Triton orders Arista to entertain the son of an earl. Of course, Triton is more accepting than Arista fears, and she's glad to be proven wrong.
Those who know Arista from the television series might find this version softer and less snarky, though she's still a stubborn one. Where Ariel usually feels left out, in this instance it's Arista who does, and the change of point of view is interesting. Arista's priorities and internal justifications are different from Ariel's, but she's just as willfull and cunning to get what she wants.
At Ariel's school, her teacher Mr. Chubb is abruptly replaced with a substitute, Mr. Kipper. Now normally this wouldn't be cause for concern, but Ariel has been reading about the famous spy Mata Herring (*cough*) and is hyperaware of what she feels is Mr. Kipper's suspicious behaviour. Mr. Kipper's story about why Mr. Chubb is gone changes, his lessons seems to be deliberately difficult, and he acts weaselly when Ariel confronts him about it.
Ariel recruits her classmate Coral so they can spy on Mr. Kipper, hoping to find some evidence that will give him away and uncover his true agenda. When they go to King Triton with flimsy evidence, the king dismisses them and Coral bows out, so Ariel recruits her sisters Attina and Adella to see the case to its natural conclusion.
While Ariel's suspicions are usually validated, in this particular story they're not, and it all turns out to be merely part of Ariel's overactive imagination. It certainly makes for a change, though there's that whole secondhand embarrassment thing going on.
The circus is in town! Ariel and her sisters visit said circus while it's still being set up, and they meet the Magnificent Merseer, who claims that her magical pearl can tell the future. Although most of the royal sisters are skeptical, Ariel is curious enough to press for their fortunes. The pearl offers two small predictions that will happen to Adella and Attina, and one huge prediction that will happen to King Triton: i.e. that his crown will be toppled. Aquata is shocked at the idea that their father's kingdom will be threatened, and tries to dismiss the whole thing.
When the Merseers two small predictions come through, Ariel is worried. Her father will be visiting the circus for the opening, and Ariel knows that no one will take her worry seriously. She convinces her sisters to volunteer for the circus, where they get up to various shenanigans in the hopes of protecting their father.
This is one of those stories about a self-fulfilling prophecy, plus paying attention to literal phrasing. The sisters do have good intentions, though, and get a laugh out of their adventure.
King Triton takes his daughters (plus Sebastian) on a trip to the Arctic to visit the Duchess Dagmer in her beautiful ice palace. It should be a typical trip, except the Duchess' palace has a reputation for being haunted by Morwen, the Duchess' ancestor who built the palace and died in it when he refused to leave during a storm. Ariel and her sisters have differing opinions as to whether the ghost truly exists, but Ariel is unnerved when she learns that she's to sleep in the room where Morwen died.
The Duchess, for her part, is a warm host and insists that Morwen isn't malicious. Her great-grandsons Starwin and Winterford, however, spook the mersisters by their suspicions that Morwen doesn't like guests. Already on edge, the sisters react with shock when they see glimpses of a black-eyed, blue-skinned spectre, who appears to be the famous Morwen himself. That said, Ariel isn't Ariel if she doesn't try to get to the bottom of things and talk to "Morwen" to find out what he wants.
It's mayhem in the palace when Andrina gets her hands on a trunk full of practical-joke props, and has decided to use them on all her sisters without prejudice. Although the first few tricks go over okay (Adella getting rubber seaweed for dinner, Aquata getting purple paint on her face), they soon lose their lustre. Andrina refuses to stop when her sisters ask her to, insisting that it's all in good fun and that they have no sense of humour.
Retaliation seems to be the way to go, with Aquata pulling a prank of her own to have Andrina "crowned" Queen of the Clowns, but Andrina remains unfazed and keeps going. There is fine line between humour and cruelty, and Ariel believes it's been crossed when her class's science project is ruined by one of Andrina's jump scares, and Alana bursts into genuinely distressed tears by Andrina's trickery. The only thing the sisters can think will stop Andrina for good is to get her trunk of props away.
It's time for the school's annual costume ball. Ariel and her sisters are excited about this upcoming event, especially because tradition states that girls be the ones to ask the boys to go. Some of the sisters have boyfriends already and others (such as Ariel) are uninterested in asking any boy, but one sister in particular is having trouble asking the boy she really, really wants to. That sister is bookish Attina, who has a major crush on Tendrick: a shy, poetic merboy from her class and who also works at the library that Attina frequents.
Attina's crush is a "secret", but her sisters notice her strange behaviour easily enough. Although Ariel and Alana have their reservations, the others think they should help Attina, since it's obvious she'll never do anything on her own. First on the agenda is to find the boy that Attina likes. The sisters snoop at the library and find two candidates: Tendrick, a quiet klutz, and Taz, a popular and cool guy. Adella reckons it's "obviously" Taz the one Attina is crushing on, so the sisters hatch a scheme so that Attina and Taz will go to the ball together.
The good intentions lead to a comedy of errors, with Attina getting a date with Taz, and later, when the sisters learn their mistake Adella tries to fix it and ends up getting Tendrick herself. Of course, it being a costume ball means there might be another way to get the right pairs together.
This novel is the closest the series has gotten to feeling like an episode of the television show. Where the other novels focus on the mersisters and life in the palace, this one has Ariel going on a secret adventure and saving the day.
Ariel, Aquata and Alana are exploring the reef when they rescue Phindolo, a baby dolphin, and help him return to his mother, Dolphine. They, with the other dolphins Rudolph, Marino and Madolpho, live at Coral Cove. Aquata and Alana are nervous about visiting Coral Cove, because of new rumours that humans have arrived at Aqua Shore, which is very close to Coral Cove. Aquata and Alana also enjoy sharing their stories about the awful things humans do, which forces Ariel to mind her tongue where she would rather defend humans. It doesn't help that King Triton has decreed that no merfolk is to go to the surface.
The sisters become friends with the dolphins and ask if they would like to participate in the princesses' ballet that they're performing for the anniversary of King Triton's coronation. The dolphins are delighted to join, but when the rehearsals begin the next day, they don't arrive as promised. Ariel and Flounder go to investigate, and find Coral Cove deserted. With Scuttle's help, Ariel and Flounder head to Aqua Shore, where Phindolo is trapped in a pen made by humans, and the other dolphins are trying to get him out. It's time for Ariel's igenuity to come into play to save the dolphins and get the ballet back on track.
It's Oceanvironmental Week in Atlantica, a week-long festival about the wonders of the underwater world, featuring lectures and special displays at the Museum of Natural Seastory. Ariel and her sisters know that creature-loving Alana has been looking forward to this event for some time, so they're surprised when she doesn't show up for the opening lecture by Dr. Puffer, a famous puffer fish professor who's the leading expert on the mysteries of the sea.
Ariel goes to check on Alana, and discovers that her sister has befriend Hummer, a rare colour-changing humfish that most merfolk think are mythical. Hummer is a terrified little thing that's trying to find his way to the Sea of Meramera, but he's stalled in Atlantica because he's been injured in escaping from a volcano. Alana's been protecting him, but it's been tough for Hummer to heal well when he's in the sea kelp forest. Ariel suggests that Humer come into the palace, but it's a risky thing because Hummer is such a rare creature that Ariel and Alana fear that if he were found, some (such as Dr. Puffer) would try to keep him in order to study him.
So it's up to the sisters to care for Hummer in the palace while it's teaming with activity and guests for the festival. It's made more difficult because of Hummer's curious and clumsy nature, which seems to get him in trouble no matter where he goes.
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