Book Review: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea

Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Rating: 2 out of 5.

published: 3rd September 2020
spoilers? nope


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.

Galley provided by publisher

CWs: mentions of rape, on-page torture, implied torture of side character, misogyny, alcohol abuse, on-page mutilation

Sometimes you come across a book that just makes you think, maybe I shouldn’t be reading this genre anymore. Well that book, for me, is The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea (the genre being YA fantasy, of course).

But this, unlike the other ones I’ve suffered through this year, was a little different. There was more than just boredom happening. So strap in, this could get a bit like a rant.

First let me start with some positives. I really loved the lore of this world, namely the idea of the sea being something to pay tithe to (and as such, Rake’s storyline was by far the most interesting aspect of the book to me), and the story of the mermaid who falls in love with a witch and the sea cursing them both. But I really wish those had played larger roles in the plot than they did.

Instead though, I got something that was boring and aimless.

Primarily that aimlessness came from there not seeming to be an overarching arc to the story, at least not until the very end. The individual parts had their own arcs, sure, and that would have been fine if I could see where it was going. But I couldn’t and, as such, it felt very like the plot was going nowhere (and, unsurprisingly, I got bored). Not to mention a good chunk of the plot seemed to have no point in and of itself. Like how Flora learns magic, but for what purpose? The eponymous witch is only there to actually teach her said magic, and plays no other role in the plot. I said above I wanted the lore to feature more prominently than it did – this is exactly where I could have done with that happening.

And then there’s the instalove. Good Lord I haven’t read one so bad in a while. Like I do get that, for plot purposes (what little there is), Flora and Evelyn need to be at least friends with one another by the end of the first part. But there’s friends and then there’s goddamn instalove and I just cannot stand the latter. Not to mention the whole vibe of how Evelyn is “not like other rich girls”. Please, spare me.

But now we come to the kicker of this book. The genderfluid rep (with the caveat this is not an ownvoices review, so please take what I’m saying with a healthy pinch of salt).

Throughout the book, it never feels as though Flora identifies as a man through anything other than necessity. The idea that a woman is not strong enough to be on a pirate ship (which, also, brings me to a minor point about the misogyny and homophobia in this world like. I’m so tired of fantasy worlds, where you can make all sorts up, and yet cannot imagine a world where these bigotries don’t exist). It never feels as though Florian is anything but a mask, or a completely separate individual.

This is particularly evident in how Flora speaks about Florian (as if he were a mask). And in how, in Flora’s POV, only she/her pronouns are ever used. In fact, he/him pronouns are only used in outsiders’ POVs. So, yeah, pronouns don’t equal gender, and all, but there’s no real talk of the latter.

And then there are these quotes:

“They do prefer women.” This time, Flora said nothing. 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.

Hearing Florian aloud dragged her back to the Dove, back to her life on the sea with the Nameless Captain and Rake. And Alfie. “That’s not my name,” she said finally. “Isn’t it?” Xenobia held Flora’s eyes, unblinking. […] “There are those who are neither man nor woman. Those who were born and called the wrong gender and must reshape their story for those around them. But you. You’re something else. You’re whatever is safe. Both, maybe, but not neither. Or interchangeable.”

In the first, it’s the reference to Florian being “a spell of safety” and Flora “[not reaping] the benefit of either”. In the second, it’s Flora’s response of “that’s not my name”, and Xenobia’s comment that “you’re whatever is safe”.

None of this, to me, rings true of genderfluidity. Genderfluid people are not “whatever is safe”. I would be surprised if they thought about “reap[ing] the benefit of either”. And the way Flora’s first instinct is to say Florian isn’t her name does not feel like she actually identifies with him in anyway.

And yes, I could be persuaded this is less a story of a character who knows they are genderfluid, and more one of them realising they are, but you just need to take a look at the reviews to see that very few people seem to be picking Flora’s genderfluidity up at all. I’m not sure there was enough evidence to subscribe wholly to that reading.

Add onto this the talk of “holding two identities in her heart” following this talk with Xenobia (again, I wouldn’t have thought genderfluidity meant two separate identities), still only using she/her pronouns in her POV, and the bit at the end where the pronouns flip-flop back and forth based on the name another character uses to refer to Flora?

It just feels like a mess in all.

(That said, if anyone knows of any ownvoices reviews of the genderfluid rep, please do let me know!)

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea

  1. i haven’t read this book nor do i plan to because i absolutely hate insta-love, but that gender fluidity rep seems yikes (granted i’m not genderfluid so). also, i heard that a Black character was a slaver? which is really sus for me.
    but yes to more fantasy worlds without homophobia, misogyny and other types of bigotry! sometimes they’re explored and challenged well within a fantasy world, but it’s so refreshing to escape to a world where those types of prejudices don’t exist

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yeah, there’s two Black characters on the pirate ship that runs slaves, and neither of them question it until evelyn comes along, so i don’t blame you for not being keen to read it

      & yes!! i know books that successfully explore and challenge bigotries in fantasy, but this was not one of them tbqh

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d previously only heard good things about this book, so I appreciate you pointing out some of the more problematic aspects. I’m not genderfluid either, but based on my limited understanding, I don’t think genderfluid people change their name based on what gender they are in a given moment. They may give themselves a new name, but I don’t think they have multiple identities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yeah, i did try find reviews that discussed it in depth, but they all seemed to be along the lines of “nice to see genderfluid rep” or just….not realising that this character was supposed to be that at all…


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