German Reading Project: Nymphs: Tödliche Liebe, by S. Luhtanen and M. Oikkonen, translated by Alexandra Stang

This is the first novel-length German book I’ve read from beginning to end (Der Kleine Prinz being very short) without interrupting it with English reading. I’m pretty proud of myself. And one day maybe I’ll read a German book that isn’t in translation! Translation is great, but I feel like I’m doing German literature a disservice by snubbing its authors…

This was a spontaneous read. Spuggy found it in a clearance bin as a preizreduziertes Mängelexemplar (when an unsold book is superficially damaged in order to sell it more cheaply) and decided that it was deliciously trashy-looking enough for my tastes. He was, as always, dead right.

So, the book I just finished is the second half of a story that was published as one book in Finnish (this seems to happen quite regularly in German translations – you see it in translated fantasy series a lot. Maybe it’s just a wordy language?) so of course my next aim in life is to find the first one. And that isn’t all the backstory I’m missing, either. It’s the novelisation of a Finnish TV series. Which I now need to see, desperately. If only to make sure I’ve understood the mentalness of this story correctly.

Because I read it all in one go, I’m not going to do a “favourite words per chapter” thing this time, but try to discuss it more like I would any other book. In addition to a spoiler warning, there is of course an”I might have misunderstood things” warning in force as well.

So. Nymphs. Pronounced “nümphs” in German, of course.

It’s (half of) the story of a group of nymphs who’ve escaped a slave life under satyr rule in… somewhere? magical? (this seems to be Book 1 info) and are now living in Helsinki, trying to evade recapture and live normal lives. This is even harder than it would usually be, as they’re immortal, necessitating regular moves and new identities, and have to have sex with a man once every full moon or they die. Still workable… except the man dies.

Yes. They murder a man once a month, just to live.

These are the goodies, by the way.

The satyrs don’t seem to have this problem (but again, that might be Book 1 info). Satyrs and nymphs seem able to get it on without any casualties at all, but the satyrs are just a bit too slave-driving and brutal for many nymphs to be happy with that state of affairs, so I guess the only way out was to go and leave a trail of bodies through the mortal world? So it’s already sort of complicated: in the world of nymphs and satyrs, the satyrs are clearly terrible people and the nymphs are totally within their rights to want to escape. But in the wider world of nymphs, satyrs and humans, it’s a bit more messy.

If you’re expecting any of this to be explored, resign yourself to be disappointed.

The main character, Didi, always thought she was a human until she accidentally sexed a man to death. She does retain all her qualms about her nymph survival requirements, but neither of the other older, more experienced nymphs she lives with understands her moral dilemmas at all, or even makes an attempt to. Amazingly, they even manage to befriend local police officers who don’t… seem… to mind…? OK, so one is a reluctant satyr agent (manipulated by blackmail) and so isn’t exactly innocent, and the other has a bit of a Javert-style crisis of faith and quits, but the fact remains that later, when they’re looking for a kidnapped Didi and find an empty van with a dead guy in it (thrown in there to “feed” her – literally, the book calls men used in this way “die Ernährung“, which is amazing) he doesn’t even express any sadness over the fact that some random guy seems to have been grabbed off the street and thrown like a goat into a lions’ cage. What about his family? What about… I dunno, anything?

Well, regardless, we all know that this isn’t the point of the book. It’s not about the clash of social mores and taboos, it’s about Didi being able to sleep with her crush without murdering him. Will she ever be able to?!

You’ll just have to read or watch it to find out. Or guess.

Nymphs was delightfully full of insane plot twists and random backstory reveals, and combined with the fact that I haven’t read Book 1, I spent a lot of it wondering whether I was supposed to know what was going on. I found it difficult sometimes to know what was flashback and what was currently happening, and the jury’s still out as to whether that was due to my threadbare German knowledge or the quality of the writing/translation itself. Probably a mixture of both? Plot twists came out of absolutely nowhere – at one point Didi, the chosen one, having tried a magical medicine to fight her nymph urges, staggers out into the forest one full moon and is covered by bees, and a few chapters later Nadia, the healer nymph with a clandestine Good Satyr boyfriend, who believes very hard in the legends of Didi being the chosen one, argues that Did has to be the chosen one, because the legend speaks of bees serving her, and that one time Did was covered in bees (who saved her from sexless death somehow? it’s not clear what really happened out in the forest). The bee thing is never mentioned before or after this.

And then it (possibly) turns out that Didi isn’t even the chosen one, so the bee thing makes even less sense! This is totally a My Comprehension Thing, but throughout Book 2 we find out Didi’s backstory: she’s the daughter of a nymph (one of her housemates’ sister) and a random man she cheated on the antagonist satyr with when he was using her as a slave in London. Her real mother, Rose, gave birth while the nymphs were fleeing, and only her sister Kati knew about the pregnancy, for incredibly flimsy reasons. The sister had some very unscrupulous tattooist tattoo the knot symbol on the baby, and gave Didi to an allied human family to raise, because the legend said the nymph liberator would be raised by humans. So she fulfils all the criteria, though she never really believes it herself.

Then on the last page, the daughter of one of the branches of the allied human family who raised Didi, seems to be revealed as the real chosen one? Ambiguously? She has the symbol, she’s super psychic, and there’s a sort of muddied link with nymphs and satyrs through the surprise last-act antagonist, and honestly, it’s very confusing and complicated. I think it might work better as a series when the plot has more room to unfold.

One of the only really interesting themes the book seems to properly engage with is the ambiguity of the legend. There appear to be a lot of different versions of the legend, some of which say the nymph will free the nymphs, or defeat the satyrs, or defeat the moon (which I assume means the sex thing), or rule the world/help others rule the world/have a world-ruling baby. Kati’s attempt to make the prophecy come true on her own and her assertion that it doesn’t matter if Didi is real or not because the nymphs want to be free clashes with Nadia’s wholehearted belief in the mysticalness of the legend in a good show of character and personality. I liked that. But who knows how much of it will be explored in future, if the actual chosen one really isn’t Didi?

I guess there’s only one way to find out!

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