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.
Warning: This review contains some mild spoilers.
The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea was among my most anticipated for 2020: a sapphic pirate story that promised to actively grapple with colonialism sounded right up my alley. Not to mention the gorgeous cover…
Unfortunately, everything about this book felt unpolished. I could see what the author was trying to do, but unfortunately the pieces never fully came together. To list a few of my gripes: the instalove between Evelyn and Flora was entirely unbelievable; the plot devices that brought them into the same orbit were flimsy; and the magic system was only introduced halfway through the story, and its origins were never properly explained.
Of course, there were a few shining moments in the darkness. This book shows one of the main characters exploring their gender identify, and I am glad to see more nonbinary representation in YA fiction.
By far my biggest disappointment, however, was how The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea tackled colonialism and slavery. I should note outright that these are just my views, and there are plenty of positive reviews on this subject, but the exploration of these issues didn’t work for me.
My main criticism is that there was a clear disconnect between the message Tokuda-Hall wanted to portray – that colonialism is bad – and how the characters who deliver that message behave. The really bad characters all meet horrible ends, but Evelyn and Flora, who also uphold and benefit from the system in different ways, are never forced to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.
Evelyn starts this book by abusing her power over her maid and lying about to her maid’s face about how she feels. Later, Evelyn is horrified by the revelation that her parents are looking to expand the empire at all costs, but only because she’s surprised that they’re evil and dared to make her a pawn in their imperial game. Apart from them failing in this particular endeavour to colonise another land, there are no consequences for her family, or for the imperial system as a whole. Flora, meanwhile, is a literal slaver (and also black, which was a weird dynamic), but never really grapples with that choice except to note that she does what she has to survive. It’s only seeing the girl she loves become enslaved that prompts her to change her mind.
I’m sure there are people much more knowledgable than me who may have differing views on how The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea dealt with these issues, but this book left a weird taste in my mouth.
Note: I received an ARC from Candlewick Press.