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

I honestly think it does a great disservice to this book to consider/market it as YA. For starters, I very nearly bounced off it in the first few pages when a main character, who we’re clearly meant to feel sympathy for, brutally kills an unarmed man. Had I gone in thinking this was a regular fantasy novel, I would’ve probably been okay, but as a YA novel, that seemed like way too much too soon.

I’m glad I persevered tho, even if, in the end, I strongly stand by my opinion that this book is far too mature to be labeled YA. Said MC, Flora, has adopted the male persona of Florian in order to help her survive life on the Dove, a slaving ship that pretends to be a passenger vessel in order to lure in victims before shackling and selling them off. Florian hates it here, but stays because it’s still a safer place for her to live with her brother Alfie than the cold streets of the Imperial city they fled as homeless orphans.

Lady Evelyn Hasegawa is not much loved by her noble parents, who seem relieved more than anything else to ship her off to wed a new money Imperial commander several months’ sea travel away. Remanded to the care of the pious Lady Ayer, she embarks on the Dove with little optimism. When Florian is set by the Dove’s first mate to guard Evelyn’s honor from the rest of the leering crew (as a high-born virgin commands a higher price from the slavers of the Red Coast,) Evelyn is drawn to the young sailor and decides to teach him how to read. Their growing friendship causes Florian to second-guess her own role in what will inevitably happen to Evelyn and the other passengers. And that’s even before the sailors capture a mermaid and bring it aboard.

This synopsis barely skims the surface of a fascinating, deeply complex tale of love, gender identity and yes, pirates, mermaids, witches and the sea. Maggie Tokuda-Hall wraps all of this in a politically astute package that grapples with colonialism, realpolitik and sexism as well — heady stuff even before all the sex and violence. This book leans really hard on the Adult part of Young Adult, and while that may have exposed it to a bigger audience, it still feels a bit wrong. Our protagonists may be teenagers in a fantasy realm, but they’re put into very adult situations and expected to shrug things off the way adults might.

Marketing and genre aside, I thought this was a very well done tale that didn’t sugarcoat its sometimes very hard lessons. I’m very intrigued by what happens to Genevieve next, and rather hope that the sequel follows her story at least in part. The contrast between her and Rake’s reactions to the Imperial conquest of Quark was excellent for its realism, and I’d love to read more of their complicated relationship with Empire as she, especially, keeps growing.

I read The Mermaid, the Witch, And The Sea thinking it was part of the 2021 Hugo slate for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book and it was not, grr argh. It was still a v good book tho!

The Mermaid, the Witch, And The Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall was published May 5 2020 by Candlewick Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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