I haven’t read any YA fantasy for a while so when Walker UK offered the chance to dive into an arc of The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, I decided to go for it. Aside from the stunning cover, the promise of pirates and mermaids was just too alluring. I was 100% up for this voyage.
For a debut, this book has a lot going for it, but it also feels very much like a first novel. It’s packed with intriguing elements – shadowy pirate kings, non-binary characters, queer romance, yet they all hang together in a slightly disjointed way. As with quite a few fantasy tales I’ve read recently, the story seems secondary to the individual concepts. That’s not to say it’s not worth reading – the novel includes some memorable scenes and I enjoyed seeing the gender fluidity of the characters. It’s also very readable with a nice balance between action, dialogue and description.
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In a world divided by colonialism and threaded with magic, a desperate orphan turned pirate and a rebellious imperial lady find a connection on the high seas.
Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is headed to an arranged marriage she dreads. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian. Neither expects to fall in love.
Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, double agents, and the all-encompassing Sea herself. Deftly entwining swashbuckling action and quiet magic, Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s inventive debut novel conjures a diverse cast of characters seeking mastery over their fates while searching for answers to big questions about identity, power, and love.
The pirates are the dominating group in The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea. I don’t condone their actions at all (trigger warnings – off-page rape, slavery, torture) but I do understand why Tokuda-Hall included these behaviours in the story. For Florian/Flora to break free convincingly, we have to see the extremity of the world she lives in. Much of the book is about survival and what it takes – morally, physically and spiritually – to stay alive when you have nothing. Flora, Evelyn and Rake (Flora’s mentor) all battle with these questions throughout the story.
The first part of the story starts on the ship Dove and I found this section to be the most riveting as the true purpose of the voyage was revealed. The wider pirate culture wasn’t explored in great depth nor the society of the greedy Imperial forces. However, I did like the inclusion of the shadowy Pirate Supreme as a rebellious counterfoil to the ruthless empire. I just wish that this had been expanded upon.
The scenes with the witch took up the central part of the book. Although these were interesting in that they allowed Florian/Flora to explore her true motivators and the power of identity, they seemed to exist in a plot bubble. I’d almost suggest reading this middle section as a separate short story. There were ties to the main narrative, but they felt flimsy – at least for me and I confess that I didn’t full understand the witch’s story or her actions. She verged on acting merely as a deus ex machina.
What intrigued me more during the middle segment was Evelyn’s tale, which was packed with tension and ingenuity. She was an active protagonist with clear goals and probably my favourite character in the novel. I know that some people have dismissed her feelings for Flora as insta-love, but the relationship worked for me as they both shared similar traits and needs.
The Mermaids and the Sea
The mermaids and the Sea form a mythological backdrop to the novel. The magical mechanisms are original and give a sense of a much larger power controlling the domain of the main characters. They are very much background players though. Mermaids only appear sporadically at key points in the narrative so if you’re hoping for defined personalities with an active role, then this isn’t going to meet your expectations. That’s not to say that there’s not enchantment in their depiction. I was entranced by the way that Tokuda-Hall chose to describe these ethereal beings.
Even though the book didn’t quite hang together in places, I’m really glad that I read The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea. Maggie Tokuda-Hall has created a strange and meaningful fantasy that is swimming with mysterious forces. The queer romance and diverse, bi-gender characters also add to the freshness of the novel with Shakespearean tropes extended to their full potential. I’m not going to suggest you bump this to the top of your TBR pile, but if you fancy an escapist read then this will whisk you away from normality and take you on a watery adventure.
- Format: Paperback
- ISBN: 9781406395501
- Published: 03 Sep 2020
- Pages: 416
- Age 14+
Buy The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall |Amazon
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
- The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
- The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James
- The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M.Harris