ARC Review: The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the SeaThe Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Warnings: multiple allusions to rape/sexual assault of a secondary character; depiction of torture (waterboarding); physical violence; imprisonment; slavery and human trafficking; starvation, homelessness and poverty

A genderfluid character (I will be using she/her for brevity) on a pirate ship and the girl who changes her path coincides with themes of imperialism and colonialism, in this Japanese-coded fantasy series. Florian is what Flora becomes when she becomes a part of the crew of Dove, where the pirates pretend to be a regular passenger ship to trap people and sell into slavery for years. The Nameless Captain of the Dove is a cruel man who doesn’t exactly follow the Pirate Supreme’s edict to not harm mermaids, and regularly consumes mermaid blood that causes hallucinations and loss of memories. Evelyn Hasegawa is a Lord’s daughter, who is being sent off to one of the far colonies in marriage, and is one of the ill-fated passengers of the voyage, befriends Florian out of boredom and tries to teach her how to read. When Florian realizes she can’t let Evelyn also be sold, she helps her and the mermaid on board escape.

“There’s freedom in stories, you know. We read them and we become something else. We imagine different lives, and while we turn the pages, we get to live them. To escape the lot we’re given.”

The world-building is vague but you can see signs of our world’s geography kinda laid out over it – the Nipran empire is Japanese imperialism extended over the Known World, where they have colonized nearly every major continent, with Tustwe akin to Africa probably, and another being Ireland probably, I don’t know. This is very loosely based, so in terms of world-building it feels very superficial – some aspects of a particular culture applied as generalizations, like pale skin and freckles from one part of the world, Black people from one part, Nipran culture having kimonos with obis but also corsets for some reason. The naming style of Nipran society also made no sense with English-language names like Evelyn, Elizabeth, etc but having Japanese surnames; however, a servant from another country has a name like Keiko, which followed Nipran naming conventions? I did however like the mythology of the mermaids, and the Pirate Supreme and the story of how they came to be the Pirate Supreme.

Now, when we come to the main characters, I could see the slight enemy-to-lovers vibe – Florian is supposed to not care for Evelyn; in fact, many people of the crew hate the Nipran empire for colonizing the world, so their hatred extends to the nobility, the Imperials. Florian’s attraction towards Evelyn stems from the ‘not like the others’ trope, which fair enough, but we don’t see much development of their relationship in text. They are comfortable in each other’s presence but the romantic development feels lacking. I liked Flora’s and Evelyn’s character arcs separately, but I feel more work could have been done with them being together. Part of Flora’s character arc is to realize she is genderfluid, but also to realize that she can wield magic, and this is done so by having her meet and learn from a witch called Xenobia who lives on the Floating Isles; I felt that this part of the arc also felt incomplete with Xenobia warning her about the consequences of magic but nothing actually happening to suggest why this was included (Chekov’s gun and all that).

Yes, she was an orphan, a sister, a pirate, a girl, and also a boy. But more importantly, she was a person who sought power to protect those she loved. Including herself. Or himself. Both were equally true to her. Neither told the whole story.

Finally, I must say, the ending took me by surprise with the turn it took, and I liked it for that. Overall, the book also gave me Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides vibes, but much more because of how it discussed the consequences of imperialism. Still I felt it could have worked better on the main romantic relationship and the world-building.

Is it diverse? sapphic genderfluid Black main character; Japanese-analogue sapphic main character; secondary Black characters; minor non-binary Black character

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Candlewick Press, via Netgalley.

View all my reviews

Buy links

The Book Depository | Wordery

Released on May 5, 2020

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