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

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

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Alex Mitchell
Reviewed by Alex Mitchell
Summary: A gripping and wonderfully romantic story of magic, stories and memories set in an interesting and well-realised world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: May 2020
Publisher: Candlewick Press (MA)
ISBN: 978-1536204315

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On the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl has assumed the identity of Florian the man in an attempt to fit in with the crew. Life is hard as a pirate, trust and empathy are the first things to be discarded, but anything has to be better than starving on the streets. Meanwhile, the young Lady Evelyn Hasegawa boards the Dove, headed off to be married to a military man she's never met on some far-flung colony of the Nipran Empire. Neither of them expects to be thrown together by fate, never mind fall in love…

The book seems to have two overarching themes: Memories and Stories. In the case of stories, this is first brought up as Evelyn and Flora start to bond over reading lessons, and they even discuss what the point of reading and writing fiction is. A witch that Flora meets on the Floating Islands tells her stories, or perhaps it would be accurate to call them fables, to teach her about the cost of magic. The magic in the setting also revolves around stories, since it involves telling a story about the world, then using the ending of the story to effectively reshape the world around the witch. Memories also feature quite heavily in the story and are tied quite strongly to identity. Those who drink the blood of mermaids start to lose some of their memories, and at the same time lose some of their humanity. The Nameless Captain has drank so much mermaid blood that he's forgotten who he is, where he came from, even his own family, and he is easily the most monstrous person in the story (to be a slaver, you kind of have to be). These two themes are woven skilfully throughout the book and make it so much more engaging.

The characters in the book are really well-written and are sympathetic in their own way. The first of the viewpoint characters is Flora, a former street urchin, who has joined the crew of the pirate ship Dove, commanded by the sadistic and brutal Nameless Captain and the enigmatic first mate Rake. Flora adjusts to the life of a pirate, but at the same time is wracked by self-loathing over all the horrible things she has to do. She also has to look after her brother Alfie, who has turned to drink in order to cope with his new lifestyle. She is assigned to guard Lady Evelyn Hasegawa because she lacks the necessary equipment to, to quote the Nameless Captain, "disassemble her maidenhood" (because Evelyn is a virgin, she'll apparently sell for more in the sex slave markets). Evelyn has also had a pretty tough life, but not in the same way as Alfie and Flora. Her parents were extremely cold and distant with her, often hammering into her head that she is ultimately expendable and worthless, culminating with them marrying her off to pay off their debts, ripping her away from her lifelong friend, maid and first love Keiko. The final insult is that don't even give her a trunk to carry her luggage in, they give her a coffin to remind her that she is worth more to them dead than alive. It's no wonder that Evelyn is brimming over with spite, but at the same time shows a softer, kinder streak, particularly to those serving her. The romance between Evelyn and Flora is really well-written, it feels very organic and natural. One of the more interesting and unusual characters in the book is The Sea – yes, the actual literal sea, which is a vast, ancient entity and mother to all the mermaids in the setting. Its viewpoint is mostly in interludes, such as taking pity on Evelyn and Flora when they're stranded at sea a few times over the course of the story.

The world building is certainly very interesting, and quite unusual. Most of the world is ruled over by the Nipran Empire, which seems to embody all the negative aspects of colonialism, and seems to be a fusion of both the British Empire and Imperial Japan. For example, imperial women wear corsets under kimonos, and they have names like Evelyn or Genevieve alongside names like Inouye or Keiko. Also, the religion in the setting seems to be based quite heavily off Christianity (believers meet in churches which feature angels and hate magic and witchcraft with a passion) rather than Shinto or Buddhism. This unusual fusion of Eastern and Western culture may have been inspired by the author's Japanese-American heritage, and it certainly makes the setting feel more unique. Only a small handful of nations remain outside of imperial control, the largest of which is Tustwe, a multi-ethnic country with extremely relaxed gender norms. The largest faction at sea are the Pirates, who pledge themselves to serve the Sea, and are ruled over by the Pirate Supreme from their mighty warship Leviathan. The Pirate Supreme lets the pirates do mostly as they please provided that they a) pay their tithes and b) don't drink the blood of mermaids. The pirate Supreme has spies posted on all ships (of which Rake is one), to warn them of anyone breaking these rules. It is certainly a very unusual setting, and frankly all the better for it.

Overall, this is a very well-written story, packed with interesting and unusual characters and places and two great overarching themes.

Similar books by other authors:
Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo – another YA dark fantasy story with some LGBT+ point-of-view characters.
City of Ships (Stravaganza) by Mary Hoffman – another YA fantasy story featuring pirates and political intrigue.

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