Goodreads: A Comb of Wishes
Age Category: Middle Grade
Publication Date: 2022
Kela is mourning the death of her mother when she discovers a box holding a beautiful comb. The comb, it turns out, belongs to a sea woman–and she would do just about anything to get it back. So she offers Kela a trade: a wish for the comb. But wishes never turn out quite the way one thinks….
A Comb of Wishes invites readers on a magical story rich in the atmosphere, history, and folklore of the Caribbean. Kela is trying to deal with the loss of her mother, mostly by ignoring her father and her best friend Lissy. But she still wanders the beach looking for sea glass, trying to complete the collection she and her mom started. Instead she finds an ancient comb that belongs to one of the sea folk–and she agrees to give it back in exchange for the return of her mother. When Kela breaks the bargain, however, the mermaid threatens revenge. Fast-paced action; plenty of fascinating information about the beaches of St. Rita; and, of course, mermaids mean this book will likely appeal to tween readers, even though I found myself a bit perplexed by some of the plot points.
For me, the strongest part of the book is the information given about St. Rita and the ecological concerns Kela and her father feel for their home. The story overflows with evident love for St. Rita, as Kela explains the different rules that guide her in searching the beaches for treasure. For instance, she does not collect shells because that would negatively impact the environment, but she can collect sea glass (which comes from glass products weathered by the ocean). She also explains the different laws about finding treasures in different parts St. Rita, how to report any finds, and so forth. All of this really made Kela’s home come alive, while showing just how important it is to her to keep her home safe and beautiful.
The folklore in A Comb of Wishes is also fascinating. I love books where the fantastic is also shown to be dangerous, so I loved the allure Kela and her mother felt for the sea folk, while they also acknowledged that the sea folk are dangerous. Kela, of course, discovers this firsthand when she makes and breaks a bargain with a mermaid named Ophidia, who then stalks Kela in an attempt to scare her to return her comb. The dual aspects of the sea folk, however, ultimately got a bit confusing, and, for me, the ending is where the book fell apart. The book tries a bit too hard to humanize the sea folk and make them sympathetic, which ultimately both makes them seem less magical.
[Major spoilers about the ending in this paragraph!] A major part of the book is the lore that sea folk must steal a human soul in order to gain immortality, and readers learn that Ophidia steals the soul of a human who betrayed her. One assumes, naturally, that having one’s soul stolen is very, very bad–Ophidia has resisted the impulse before out of pity and only does it as a vengeful punishment. Yet, by the end of the book, Kela and her mother have discovered that Ophidia has stolen the soul of one of their ancestors and that it’s in the comb. One might assume that they would want to keep the comb to try to release their ancestor’s soul, or…something. Instead, they now feel a kinship with Ophidia because she has a family member’s soul, and they are all respectful of each other and even friends! Sorry, what? Did I miss something? Everyone is now supposed to like the scary mermaid who steals souls and tried to kill a child for an entire book?? I know mermaids are cool right now, but I thought the point of this book is that non-human magic folk are unknowable and dangerous. Not your awesome new BFF. The ending effectively undoes most of the book, turning this from a scary folkloric book into a child-friendly, “Mermaids are fun and sparkly!” book, and I do not really know why. [End spoilers!]
I realize, however, that my desire for logic in books is not always shared, and that tween readers are likely to overlook any contradictions in the plot. For those who do not mind some inconsistency in worldbuilding and messaging, A Comb of Wishes will prove an engrossing read.