The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
Author: Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Published: May 5, 2020
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Number of Pages: 368 pages
Source: Goodreads Giveaway
A desperate orphan turned pirate and a rebellious imperial daughter find a connection on the high seas in a world divided by colonialism and threaded with magic.
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, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. 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.
Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.
I want to start this review by pointing out that this book feels like a re-telling of pirate legends, with subtle magic (and I mean subtle), and numerous instances of LGBTQIA+ representation. There are incredible strengths to this book and some notes that fell flat for me. Let’s get into it.
It is probably most appropriate to talk about characters, of which there are many, and I think this I one of the strengths of this novel! In a world of Imperial rule and little acceptance, Flora/Florian finds themselves on a pirate ship posing as a passenger ship, hoping to survive, and adopting a new gender identity in order to blend in to the crew. I felt this adoption of an identity out of necessity was well-handled and the question of identity comes up numerous times in the book, with characters asking for preferred pronouns in a respectful way. Evelyn is complicated and intelligent, she wants love from her parents but they have none to give. This is a bit trope heavy, but Evelyn’s development through the narrative makes up for her start and the story really comes full circle for her. Among the other cast of characters are Rake, the first-mate aboard the Dove, the Captain, a nameless man who helms the Dove, Alfie, Flora/Florian’s brother, and a few other side characters.
As the title suggests, there is a Mermaid, a Witch, and the Sea in this book. I felt like the mermaid references and the Pirate code could have been explored a little bit earlier in the book, it didn’t hit home for me how much of an offense this was until about halfway through the book. The Witch is present, though I felt like those chapters weren’t as fleshed out as they could be. It’s a huge story to tell in only 368 pages. All good pirate stories feature the Sea as kind of a character and this book presents the Sea beautifully, always present, always watching.
Part 1 of the book is slow, but things need to be unpacked for the reader to fully understand. Flora/Florian’s life on the Dove needs to be explored, the danger needs to related to the reader, as well as the yearning for a better life that they experience. The reader needs to understand the reach of the Imperial state, the workings of Imperial culture and how they will impact Evelyn’s story. Once Evelyn and Flora/Florian meet, the story really picks up. The pacing can get a bit bogged down in a few places, but it picks back up with action quickly.
I mentioned subtle magic at the beginning of this review, and I still believe that the magic didn’t get quite enough attention. It seems intended to be subtle, floating just below the surface of the narrative, but why are there several chapters devoted to it in the middle of the book? I loved the way the magic worked, but there was just enough to pique my interest, but not enough to keep me interested.
Chapters that switch between characters is a trend that has been really prevalent among YA authors for a long time. Initially, I didn’t like it. As I kept reading, I understood the need for it in this story, because it isn’t the story of one main character interacting with people. It’s also not a narrative that works with a third person narrator telling the story. This story seems to only function if we switch back and forth between the key players, the juxtaposition between Flora/Florian’s rough and tumble pirate life and Evelyn’s pampered Imperial life are stark and intentional. By the end of the novel, I felt like this style choice was well suited to this novel and it worked really well.
A couple of warnings for explicit torture, allusions to rape, some violence, and trauma in this book. I’d put it firmly in the upper YA category.
This is a debut novel from Maggie Tokuda-Hall and it is an accomplishment. In reading the acknowledgements, I saw that the first draft of this was completed during NaNoWriMo in 2016. What a great nod to a month dedicated to creative writing and craft.
Overall, I did enjoy this book and I would recommend it to readers who enjoy adventure books with interesting characters!
I won a goodreads giveaway for this book and the publisher sent an ARC. This review is given of my own free will and is my honest opinion.