Maggie Tokuda-Hall jumps into the world of YA fantasy with a splash in her swashbuckling adventure fantasy The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea.
Tokuda-Hall’s story follows young pirate Florian, born Flora, and an Imperial nobleman’s daughter, Lady Evelyn Hasegawa. Their adventure is set in an island-bound universe where the Imperial Emperor has colonized most of the Known World. The lives of Florian and Evelyn converge when Evelyn, sent to meet her husband-to-be, boards the Dove with her dowry-packed coffin. The Dove is a slaver ship disguised as a passenger vessel, where Florian and his brother Alfie are part of the crew.
Florian is commanded to guard Evelyn for the first half of the voyage. What starts as a distanced relationship – Evelyn is determined to teach Florian to read – develops into friendship and later, deep love.
As the novel progresses, the pair is thrown into a tumultuous world of violence, escape, magic, and hard choices. Through it all, their affection reigns, but at times, the barriers between them seem insurmountable.
As someone with a soft spot for the sea, I really enjoyed this book. Florian’s gender journey, in particular, was wonderful to follow. He first adopted the identity of Florian as a measure of safety, but it soon became a home. When masculinity stops being a shield, however, Florian is left to contemplate who he really is – Flora or Florian, both or neither. The whole novel is filled with an array of gender representation that I’ve never encountered in one book before, and it was refreshing to read.
In fact, Maggie Tokuda-Hall takes a lot of tropes I’ve seen before – mermaids, the sea personified, pirate ships – and presents them in a way that is entirely new. Mermaids, while beautiful creatures in the water, are frightening beings on the deck. Their blood is sought after by humans looking to experience the high that comes from drinking it. Though, more importantly for some blood-drinkers, is the forgetfulness that comes afterward. Just like its lovely cover, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is full of chilling descriptions, dark corners, and breathtaking sunrises.
At times, Florian and Evelyn’s story is heart-wrenching – trigger warnings for torture and mention of rape – but its sudden drops and swells feel like a reflection of the sea itself. While the antagonists are truly despicable, no character is untouched by guilt, and it is something they must all reckon with at some point. This is a theme I really enjoyed – the self-examination and forgiveness, the questions of duty, and loyalty, and love. And above all, the tolls they take on us.
Another theme I appreciated was the power of storytelling. Stories are the tools with which we connect to others and shape our understanding of the past. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea shows us that stories are also the tools with which we can shape the future. When I finished the book, I felt as though I, too, had been shaped a little bit.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Candlewick Press, for review. You can support independent bookstores by purchasing The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea from Bookshop, or you can buy it on Amazon.