Thank you to Netgalley and Walker books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I chose this book simply based on the synopsis and the gorgeous cover art. I expected it to be a standard YA read, perhaps edging on middle grade but wow was I wrong! This novel contains all the gritty bits of a Pirate’s life and is as far from Neverland pirates and mermaids as you can get.
The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea centres around the relationship between a high-born, queer, Japanese-inspired noblewoman, Evelyn and a pirate named Florian who is secretly a girl named Flora, disguising themself in order to gain the respect of their crew mates.
Evelyn and Florian instantly capture the heart of the reader. They are such an unlikely match and from completely different worlds but the way that Maggie Tokuda-Hall throws these two characters together and alternates chapters between their perspectives is so compelling. The secret attraction and the pining between Evelyn and Florian can literally be felt through the pages. These two are guaranteed to stay with you long after the book is finished.
In fact, the majority of Tokuda-Hall’s cast of characters are so well developed: we have Rake, the first mate who is a very closed character and keeps his own intentions close to his chest for most of the novel. We have a gender-fluid Pirate Supreme, an imperialist noblewoman who can kick ass and Flora’s brother Alfie, a tortured soul whose traumatic past is alluded to often.
The portrayal of mermaids in the novel is nothing short of inspired: hunted and captured for the properties their blood possesses, mermaids are quite ugly when imprisoned by pirates. These mythical creatures that are renowned for their beauty are only conventionally beautiful in the presence of their loving mother: The Sea. The Sea, in turn, will do whatever she can to protect her children, and will always reward those who help.
The other pirates are, as you would expect, a group of shady characters but they do not fade into the background at all. Tokuda-Hall reveals right from the beginning the true intentions of this crew and it creates an underlying tension throughout the whole voyage upon The Dove. The twists, secrets and revelations onboard that ship are captivating and create a page-turning first half of the book.
I will say that during the middle of the book, mainly during “The Witch” section, the pace slowed dramatically and it just didn’t flow as much.
I almost wanted more treachery and more suspense from the witch, more struggle by Evelyn and, dare I say, more pining from Evelyn and Florian. Their relationship up to this point had been so intense and slow burning that it almost seemed to cool a little. I also feel that not quite enough was made of Evelyn’s discovery about the real reason behind her voyage. It was almost a convenient way for that side of her story to be resolved. Similarly, with Florian/Flora; their evolution from Pirate to Witch seemed quite acceptable and tame.
These factors, in my opinion, affected the ending of the novel where everything seemed quite rushed in its efforts to tie up all loose ends. Please don’t misunderstand, I LOVED the ending and how Evelyn and Flora/Florian finished their journey. I even shed a few tears. However, it was the lead up to this that just seemed too convenient and too quick.
Overall this is a wonderfully dark pirate novel that instantly creates a world full of magic and wonder whilst tackling the issues of identity, colonialism, homophobia, poverty and rape. A world where gender-fluid and queer characters fight against injustice alongside endangered mermaids and the Sea is to be respected almost as a deity.
I cannot believe that this is merely Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s debut novel! I cannot wait to see where she takes us next!