The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall is a young adult fantasy novel that is not to be missed. In fact, you should stop reading this review, skip to the buy link below and read it right now.
Oh, you’re still here? Okay, fine. Here’s what it’s about.
Flora was a street urchin who joined a pirate crew with her brother. To stay safe aboard the Dove, she takes on the identity of Florian, a man who can be as brutal as the rest of the crew.
The Dove runs a clever scam: because it looks like a passenger ship, they pick up people who think they’re going on a sea voyage, only to sell them into slavery. That’s how we meet Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, an upper-class girl of the Nipran empire, and Flora/Florian’s love interest.
Evelyn and her parents don’t have the best relationship. Evelyn realizes how bad it is when her parents tell her they’ve arranged for her to marry a man who is so far away that she’ll never come back. Aboard the Dove, Evelyn doesn’t know why Florian is assigned to spend time with her (we know, because we see the captain tell Florian that virgins fetch a higher price), Evelyn is determined to pass the time by getting to know him and teaching him to read.
Everything changes when the crew captures a mermaid and Florian and Evelyn know they need to help her. Their escape takes them on a wilder ride than they could have imagined, full of magic, love, and the opportunity to truly learn about themselves.
There’s a lot to love about the characters in The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, especially because the character work goes so deep for many of them.
Flora/Florian is bi-gender and we see her shift between the Black girl who’d had to survive on the streets with her brother and the male pirate who will slit a throat if he has to. That’s one of the core parts of her character arc and, as someone who identifies as a genderqueer woman, I found Flora/Florian’s journey incredibly validating. There are a couple of twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil, but that one character arc alone is well worth the price of the book.
Evelyn also goes through tremendous change, shifting from a pampered girl to someone who has to learn how to use her wits to fend for herself. When we first meet her, she’s used to doing whatever she wants and commanding her servants, which we spill out when she’s on the ship. Evelyn also has a big old streak of spite related to her parents, which is fair, since they’ve sold her through marriage to the highest bidder. Seeing the way Florian/Flora changes Evelyn is beautiful and just as satisfying as his/her arc.
There are a bunch of other characters in this book that are interesting, including some of the other pirates on the Dove, a witch, and the Pirate Supreme, who is a nonbinary pirate who rules the sea. The one other character I want to call out specifically is the sea itself. We actually get to read the perspective of the sea in some short chapters and I was blown away. The sea comes across as vast, powerful, and unknowable, and yet also all-knowing. It’s perfectly done.
The Writing Style
Much like the characters, I adored how this book is written. Depending on whose perspective we’re following or what’s happening, sometimes the style changes. For example, as I just mentioned, the sea’s perspective feels entirely different from everything else in this story.
Another thing I loved about is how magic works in this world. When we see the witch later in the book, she makes spells by telling stories. And in those, we basically get short stories that sit within the novel.
Everything? I mean, yeah, everything. I adore the book and everything about it works for me.
But my favourite thing of all is the way the idea of “story” informs how The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is written, as well as the character arcs. In particular, the book’s central message, which says we each get to write our own stories, is empowering. Other people might have their concept of us, but we’re the only ones who get to affirm who we are. It’s such an important lesson for kids to learn and I’m glad it’s part of this narrative.
This book and its world are pretty brutal, so we see torture in a few instances. And, although it’s not shown on the page, there are references to sexual assault.
This might be a YA novel, but I recommend it to older kiddos and adults alike. It’s one of my favourite books this year and I’ve been talking about it to anyone who will listen. In fact, I loved it so much that even though I got a review copy, I got a hard copy for my daughters to read when they’re older. If you’re into fantasy adventure stories, don’t miss out, because The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is one of a kind.
Excerpt from The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Flora returned to the Lady Hasegawa’s cabin that evening, having been commanded to stand vigil at her door. This seemed excessive to Flora. Surely no one — not even Fawkes — would attempt anything on the first night. But Rake had ordered her just the same, so that the Lady might quickly feel accustomed to her new shadow.
Flora knocked lightly on the wooden door. The wood of the Dove was forever damp, even in the fine cabins afforded to nobility and, later in the voyage, to the officers. Still, envy rankled Flora. To sleep in her own private room — to stretch out, even be naked. When had Flora ever been naked to bathe, let alone to sleep?
A girl her own age opened the door. Flora could immediately see why the captain had assigned her a guard. She was beautiful, and not just in the way that all young, rich Imperials were beautiful. She was well groomed like all of them, her long black hair pulled away from her face and arranged in some sort of complicated knot, as was the style in Crandon. She had white teeth, and all of them. Her small waist was nipped in dramatically by a corset beneath a fire-red obi. She looked just as an Imperial woman was meant to look.
But her eyes. They were darkest brown, nearly black. They shone in the dark and the dank of the Dove. A single fleck of gold glinted from one, and Flora found it very difficult to look away from it once she’d seen it. Being the same height, they looked eye to eye.
Flora disliked her immediately, in the way she disliked all Imperials. On principle. Sure, they were polite enough when one-on-one, but she knew — because she’d seen it — what Imperial kindness truly looked like.
Imagine — to be so rich, and to be gifted with beauty, too. There really was no such thing as justice. “Yes?”
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781536204315
- Publisher: Candlewick Press
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall Online
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