The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
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.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED MAY 5TH, 2020
At its heart, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is not a swashbuckling adventure, but a love story.
I have to admit that I went in imagining a very different story, based on that summary. Escaping from pirates and freeing mermaids invites an element of danger and chaos suited to the thrills of the high seas, after all! However, this is not a story about a riotous escape. It’s really not even a story about swashbuckling. Between Evelyn Hasegawa and Flora lies a love story, one about finding the best of oneself, the core of oneself, and how that slots in with the world.
While we see them mostly aboard the Dove, our protagonists ultimate take us to new lands, new depths, and new corners of themselves they’ve tucked away all this time. And yes, there are mermaids and witches. And, naturally, the sea.
“Know your truth, not your story.”
I think the most outstanding feature of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is the representation presented. Evelyn is coded as Japanese and queer, while Flora is Black and genderfluid. Whether you interpret the setting as an entirely new fantasy world, or as an alternate Earth with magical elements, it’s impossible to miss these features. Flora navigating the world as both Flora and Florian permeates her side of the narrative, forming the bedrock of her character. And there’s no mistaking her for a white character, either. Not only is she explicitly described as having dark skin, but she also reminisces about a time when she wore her hair in the style traditional to her heritage. Coupled with her rightful fury over the colonialism enforced by Evelyn’s people, she navigates the world on her own terms, but also with careful regard to her race.
(You may notice I refer to Flora largely with she/her pronouns. Flora also goes by Florian and uses he/him, but the bulk of the chapters from her point of view use she/her, or return to she/her after switching.)
As for Evelyn, you know almost immediately that she’s queer; kissing her maidservant is hardly the act of a straight girl. And her last name, codes of conduct handed down by her mother, and clothing are all Japanese.
I really enjoyed how Evelyn and Flora’s identities impacted the way they proceeded through the story. More than that, I loved the way Maggie Tokuda-Hall started digging into anti-colonialism and the violent, rippling consequences of imperialism.
But somehow, it still lost me a little.
Maybe this won’t bother other folks, but I found myself let down by the pacing. For a book that promised adventure and seemed to start out with a lovely grasp of prose, it ended up stumbling downhill as it went on, picking up speed. The enemies to lovers aspect was rushed (painfully so, given the emphasis on love and hope intertwined), and the final conflict came to a head too quickly for me. Throwing me off further, the POVs are told in a distant 3rd person that reminds me of a fairy tale. We never seem to get quite close enough to the main characters, always seem to be watching through a window. It’s hard to root for them at this distance, even if we want to.
And when you can’t root for characters effectively?
Well, like I said. The ending felt rushed, maybe even choppy. The resolution didn’t satisfy me, and I felt like I’d been robbed of the time I needed to really connect with the cast. Despite having a solid hook and a lot of promise, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea ultimately lost me at the end. It’s something of a tragedy, watching an anticipated release unravel this way.
In the end, your mileage may vary.
I’ve seen plenty of conflicting reviews already, to tell the truth. May @ Forever and Everly holds an opinion much like my own, while Shealea’s short Goodreads review raves about it. I think it’s a book you’ll have to try for yourself, in the end, and given the elements of it that I liked, I don’t hesitate to recommend it if you’re on the fence. Even if you don’t get the enemies to lovers of your dreams, you’ll still get wonderful QPOC rep, mermaids linked to memory, and a hint of witchcraft with all manner of possibility.
Plus, if you get The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea through your local bookstore of choice (or perhaps as an ebook through your local library), you’ll be supporting the author at a critical time! The book releases May 5th, its publication date unchanged, which is just around the corner!
CW: violence (including gun violence), slavery, gore, alcoholism, homophobia, misogyny, suicide, loss of a loved one, child death, torture, sexual assault mention