The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
May 5, 2020 · Candlewick Press
Teen FictionLGBTQIAScience Fiction/FantasyYoung Adult
CW: torture including water boarding, cutting off a finger, implied sexual assault
My little ears perked up when I first heard about this one. It has mermaids, witches, pirates, magic, lesbians, double agents, and a woman disguised as a man. What more could I want? I was right to be excited, because damn did it deliver that, and more. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (TMtW&tS) was so good that I tore through the first eighty-five percent and then dragged my heels for the last fifteen, because I didn’t want it to end. It’s gone directly to my Keeper Shelf because I love it SO much, I just want to hug it.
The Dove is a pirate ship that doesn’t look like a pirate ship. That makes it easy for the captain and crew to run their scam: they pose as a passenger ship in city and town ports, only to take all their passengers out to sea and announce that they’re prisoners who will be sold to the highest bidder. Flora is one of the leads and she’s part of the crew along with her brother, Alfie. To ensure she stays safe and doesn’t catch the attention of any of the other pirates, Flora goes by the name Florian and presents as a man. Florian confirms this identity with the crew by slitting the throat of one of the prisoners, showing them “the man this girl had become.”
Lady Evelyn Hasegawa is a high-born girl in the capital of the Nipran Empire. Her parents are awful and tear her down whenever they can. Because they’ve fallen on hard times, Evelyn’s mother casually tells her over a tea ceremony that Evelyn is being married off to someone in the Floating Islands. That means she has to undertake a voyage for several months and will never be back. That scene also includes one of the creepier ideas I’ve seen in a while:
She would leave with her belongings packed into her casket, as so many Imperial girls had done before. It was a tradition born of the most calculating kind of practicality, serving the dual purpose of showing the husband that the girl would be truly with him until death did they part, while also providing, at her family’s expense, a means for her burial. It was macabre, and Evelyn’s skin crawled, thinking of her kimonos and her corsets crammed into the vessel that would one day house her corpse.
The Dove’s captain practically salivates when he sees the Lady Hasegawa, since virgins fetch a higher price. So, he puts Florian in charge of keeping her virtue intact (because no penis = no deflowering, which reminds me of the report recommending an all-women crew for a mission to Mars, to prevent sex in space, which still makes me laugh). Florian and Evelyn slowly grow to know and understand each other, which is a big deal since Florian has learned not to trust Imperials. Eventually, Florian realizes he can’t let Evelyn be sold off and plans an escape for them.
First things first: yes, I shifted pronouns when talking about Flora/Florian above. Depending on which name they’re going by at the time, so do they. I’m going to stick with Flora for the rest of this review for simplicity’s sake and because it’s the primary name used in the official blurb. The only exception will be when I’m talking about Evelyn’s perspective when she thinks of him as Florian.
Flora’s gender fluidity is a crucial part of her character arc. About a quarter of the way through the book, Flora questions whether she’s female anymore because she’s lived as Florian for so long, and her complicated feelings about it hit me in the chest.
The spell of safety Florian cast over her life was slipping, and yet she did not seem to be a female anymore, either. The loss stung. She was neither, it seemed. Or at least, she didn’t reap the benefit of either.
It’s only after they escape that Flora starts to truly accept that, while she may have taken on Florian as a way to protect herself on the Dove, she can be both Flora and Florian. She can be a girl and a boy at the same time, and any pronoun is fine by her. This was incredibly validating to read as a genderqueer woman, since I feel like I slide along the gender binary, rather than stick to either end of it.
Flora’s overall journey, however, is learning who she is and what that means for her story (more about the concept of story in a moment!); making peace with her gender fluidity is part of that. She starts off as a young, Black street urchin who just wants to survive with her brother. Despite being younger than him, Flora has to take care of him because a) she’s MUCH smarter than he is, and b) he uses alcohol and other intoxicants to numb himself from the bad parts of pirating. Meeting Evelyn is a turning point for Flora, because she falls in love so hard that she’s willing to risk her own safety to take them on a journey with no certain destination. Flora at the end of this book is SO far from the former-urchin turned pirate we meet at the beginning as to be unrecognizable. That change happens because Flora changes her story again and again until she can get to the right ending.
The concept of story is a strong element of TMtW&tS. Each person has their own story, which is their truth. And as powerful as they are, stories can be changed (for example, a girl becoming a man by slitting an Imperial throat in front of a crew of pirates). Story is also integral to magic in this world and spells are woven through storytelling rather than through specific incantations. We get several short stories within TMtW&tS, some of which are spells and some help demonstrate how they make spells work. Hell, even prayer is linked with stories. When someone shouts at Flora to pray, Flora wonders, “what was prayer except the request for a better story?”
Evelyn also changes her story. She begins as the daughter of an influential family. As such, she’s used to deference and has a strong streak of “I do what I want and I don’t care what you think.” For example, she teaches Florian to read because she’s bored, even though he’s not interested. This cures her boredom and delivers an excellent side benefit.
It would rankle her parents to know that after all the money they’d wasted on Evelyn’s education, she would give it away for free. She smiled at that, and set about making the best lessons she could muster. She was not a creature of courage, but she was one of spite. This one little rebellion would sate that, at least.
She has good reason for wanting to spite her parents, since they’ve sold her to the highest bidder after treating her like garbage for her whole life. And yet, spite and anger isn’t where her story ends. By escaping with Florian, and later embracing the Flora part of her love, Evelyn writes her own story, away from the baggage of being a Hasegawa.
Another thing to note is that although there is a romantic element to TMtW&tS, this is not a romance. It’s a young adult fantasy adventure and whoa does it hit every button I didn’t know I had in the very best way. Most notably, I was surprised and delighted to learn that the Sea is a complex character with thoughts and feelings, even if we don’t get a lot of time on the page with her. The Sea is the most dangerous character in TMtW&tS, but we also see her be merciful and loving. Her perspective is delivered in interludes and I found her fascinating because as much as she’s everything I just described, there’s a massive unknowableness to her.
The only element I didn’t enjoy is how brutal things are at times. However, I wouldn’t change any of it because it felt authentic to the overall tone of the book. Like I mentioned in the content warnings above, torture happens on the Dove, sometimes to characters I loved. One thing I appreciated is that, although we learn Flora’s brother is sexually assaulted as part of a hazing when they join the ship, we never get the full details. Hinting was enough to impart the menacing nature of the perpetrating crew member, and we see that reinforced in the day-to-day life on the ship.
The writing is at times beautiful, sharp, or clever. I highlighted passage after passage, because I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to grasp these moments, so I could keep them close forever and I may get a tattoo with a quote one day (you know, when we’re allowed to get tattoos again). I’ve shared a few above already. One last favourite of mine is when Evelyn teaches Florian that books hold worlds within them.
“My point is not about the physical merits of books. But about what they contain. Master the syllabary and you’ll have access to all of it.”
“No, better. Stories. 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.”
That feels like a pretty great place to wrap this up. Because, whoa, did TMtW&tS ever help me escape the world we’re in right now. I loved it so much and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve already told eleven friends in the two days since finishing it that they must read this book. And when my eight-year-old daughter asked me what I was doing while I was writing this review, I said “I’m writing about a book that I can’t wait for you to be old enough to read.” I am seriously stoked for her and her little sister to read about these badasses some day.
As much as I’m sad it’s over, I’m excited too because the epilogue hints at a sequel. I will be ready and waiting, probably having reread this one a few times, because I so want to go back to this world.