Thank you to NetGalley and Candlewick Press for the ARC. All opinions expressed are my own.
Title: The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
Author: Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Publication Date: May 5th, 2020
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: Fantasy, LGBT+
Age Range: YA
Trigger warnings: death, torture, substance abuse, mentioned sexual assault
Synopsis: 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.
The Characters: A Noblewoman, a Pirate, and a Mermaid dive off of a ship…
These characters are my children now. I am their mother.
The story mostly alternates between the perspectives of Evelyn and Flora, who is also known as Florian, a gender-fluid black pirate who is just trying to keep her and her brother Alfie alive long enough to get off the Dove. Flora has had to make herself invisible in order to survive, but she dreams of a day when she doesn’t have to change who she is in order to blend in. Clever and courageous, Flora has an enormous heart, whether she acknowledges it or not. She struggles with her desire to break free of the things tying her down, including Alfie, and has to reconcile her love for her brother with the objective fact that he’s only made her life all the more difficult since they were children. After she meets the witch Xenobia, Flora quickly learns that her past, that her story, does not define her, and that all that matters is her truth. Instead of seeing Florian as a mask she has to don in order to stay safe, Flora eventually realizes that she is as much Florian as she is Flora.
Lady Evelyn Hasegawa has led a life that is the exact opposite of Flora’s. On the Dove, Florian is assigned to guard Evelyn from the rest of the crew. Lonely and aching for a friend, Evelyn tries to get to know Florian by teaching him how to read. There’s nothing Evelyn loves more than a good story, and she wants to share that feeling with Florian. During their lessons, it doesn’t take long for Evelyn to be confronted with her privilege and turn her perspective around, and honestly? That’s just so refreshing. Not only does Evelyn’s perspective change, but she actively works to do better as well. Ally-ship requires action, and Evelyn actually delivers.
Aboard the Dove, Rake is as close to a father as Florian is going to get and is another one of our points of view. It was actually Rake’s idea for Flora to assume Florian’s identity, in an effort to protect her from the crew by having everyone recognize her as a boy. Rake is such a fascinating character for me because you can obviously tell that he genuinely cares about Florian, but he stays silent in the wake of both Florian’s and Alfie’s suffering – which he does get called out on later! But still, it’s something that can’t be ignored.
The Sea itself is given a voice, which I adore. I’m trash for anything sea related, and Maggie Tokuda-Hall definitely delivers. The Sea is an all-powerful, all-encompassing force capable of creating tsunamis and sinking ships, but that is also capable of mourning and compassion. Each mermaid is a daughter of the Sea, entrusted with one of the Sea’s memories to keep, and I love the fact that we learn about mermaid lore from the Sea herself.
Names are funny things, because they can feel like lies but tell our truths.
The Plot: Under the Sea We Off the Hook
Imaginative and immersive, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is masterfully written and absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. This book calls out misogyny, colonization, and imperialism, and there are mermaids involved?? It’s no surprise that it is now one of my faves.
Privilege, ignorance, and unlearning a lifetime of imperialist propaganda are recurring themes throughout the book. Sometimes, when a romance features two characters from different classes, there’s a focus on the equality between them, an emphasis that they are on equal standing. I appreciate that, and I think that is necessary (relationships with a huge gap in power dynamic are NOT it folks), but what I loved about The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is that it is painfully obvious that Evelyn and Flora are not equal, at least not regarding their stories. Even though Evelyn is the one who teaches Florian how to read, her upbringing and innocence result in gaps in knowledge that don’t bode well for her survival on the Dove. Still, Evelyn has the bearings of a lady, and the ability to command attention when she so desires. My favorite part about Evelyn and Flora’s relationship is that Evelyn frequently makes mistakes and has to adjust accordingly. She consciously makes an effort to bridge the gap in power that’s between them and you can’t help but root for their relationship. They both grow so much throughout the course of the book, separately and together, and that’s just so crucial to me.
While the romance is adorable and riveting, I loved the mystery surrounding the Pirate Supreme and the detours Evelyn and Flora take away from the Dove. I won’t spoil anything, but the culmination of everything that happens in the novel is so satisfying, and despite the fact that there’s been no talk about a sequel, I am itching for a continuation of this story.
We don’t just read to imagine better lives. We read to be introduced to all kinds of lives. Any kind. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us. To understand others better. It’s escape, and it’s also a way to become more connected to everyone around you. There’s power in that, you know. In understanding. It’s like magic.”
Reasons to recommend The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
The mermaid lore is another one of my favorite things about this book. It’s unique and absolutely fascinating, and so is the magic system that Maggie Tokuda-Hall sets up. Imperialists would like to believe that witches are extinct, but their narrative is not the only one in existence. For witches, magic always comes with a price. It’s the way that they perform magic, though, that makes them so unique. Witches perform magic by listening to stories and telling them in return, and I love the way Evelyn’s love of books translates directly into magic, even if she’s not necessarily the one casting spells.
Without spoilers, the ending is beautifully done. Everything is just…beautifully done. Maggie Tokuda-Hall doesn’t shy away from complex morality and emotions, and that’s really what makes the characters and plot shine. None of the characters are what people would consider intrinsically “good,” but that makes them all the more realistic in a world of magic and mermaids.
I’ve gotten to the point where if I’m reading a book and it’s chock-full of cishet characters, I’m just like…really? You think that’s realistic? Nah fam. Luckily for me (and you!), there are multiple characters who don’t adhere to the gender binary as we know it – pronouns aren’t assumed throughout the book! When Flora and Evelyn first encounter Xenobia, Xenobia is careful not to use any specific pronouns for Flora until Flora can tell her what her preferred pronouns are. The Pirate Supreme uses they/them pronouns, the crew quickly adjusts to calling Flora Florian, and the fact that Evelyn is queer is made obvious from the very beginning. While Evelyn does encounter blatant homophobia in other Imperials, Flora’s world is one of normalized queerness, and I absolutely love it. We really do have to stan writers who not only normalize queerness in their books, but who aren’t afraid to use the words “black” or “brown.” Thank the Sea for Maggie Tokuda-Hall.
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