In a world of colonizers and pirates and survivors making desperate choices, two teens fight back against the darkness. Florian and Evelyn could not be any more different, but in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s stunning young adult debut The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea they will unite under common goals: stop the Nameless Captain, save the captured mermaid, and break free from society’s chains.
Lady Evelyn Hasegawa is despised by her mother and ignored by her father. She is too clumsy and clever to meet her mother’s impossibly high expectations and too female to appease her father’s rigid patriarchal prejudices. Sold off to marry a man she’s never met who lives in a colony on the other side of the empire, Evelyn is resigned to trading one prison for another. Aboard the Dove with her mother’s childhood friend Lady Ayer as her chaperone, Evelyn awaits her fate with grim determination. And then she meets Florian.
An outsider abandoned in Imperial lands, Flora and her older brother Alfie scrounge and steal to get by, no matter who suffers for their actions. When the cruel captain of the Dove offers them spots on his crew, they leap at the chance despite the bloody price he demands in exchange. To make life a little easier for her in the all-male crew, the first mate, Rake, dubs the girl a boy and names him Florian. For years the brothers’ entire life revolves around fighting pirate battles, kidnapping passengers and selling them as slaves, and capturing mermaids for their hallucinogenic blood. And then he meets Evelyn.
The two teens form an instant connection, even though both know it can’t last. When his crew launches their dastardly plan to sell the passengers into slavery, Florian finds he can no longer pretend he isn’t making the world worse. He and Evelyn escape with a mermaid in tow and set off a chain of events that will lead to their undoing. Betrayals come from all corners, grand conspiracies are exposed, and new identities are forged. And in the midst of all the chaos, the romance between Flora and Florian and Evelyn blooms bright.
Saying The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a story about identity is both accurate and incomplete. As an Imperial by blood, Evelyn lives a life of privilege and excess, but as a daughter she has few rights and no control. She is bound by the same rules as Flora on the Dove: men have all the power. Although Evelyn’s rank rises aboard the ship by virtue of her wealth, she is still subject to men’s whims. Evelyn’s identity as a young unmarried high caste woman determines how she moves through life, what she has access to, and what she’s denied.
Her co-star has a more complicated relationship with identity. As Flora, a young woman descended from people from one of the nations brutally colonized by the Nipran Empire, she is at the bottom of the social power scale. When she takes the name Florian she rises in rank. Being a boy, even a colonized one, gives Florian a level of power Evelyn doesn’t have. But what if Florian isn’t really a boy or a girl but both? How does a person parse that question when they don’t have the vocabulary to explain it or the examples to learn from? How do they move from making a choice to being confused to understanding who they truly are?
Each new character pushes the protagonists’ old identities in different ways. Evelyn’s discoveries about her fiance and the fine line she walks with the soldier who wants her for himself makes her change the way she thinks of herself. Likewise, the Dove’s protective first mate and the self-centered witch force Flora to reconcile with the parts of herself she isn’t sure she wants to deal with. Tokuda-Hall digs into these fraught identity questions as Evelyn and Florian journey across the Nipran Empire. She folds in the issues of race, colonialism, and sexual assault into conversations about sexism and the patriarchy, and complicates the hero’s journey with queer discovery.
Deftly navigating intricate nuances, Tokuda-Hall crafts a vivid world so detailed and complicated it feels almost real. It’s the kind of world she could tell a hundred different stories in and still not run out of material. Populating this sprawling empire are characters we rarely see in young adult fantasy. They play against type and break the rules of tropes. They react in ways the reader doesn’t expect and wear the scars of colonialism and the patriarchy in like badges of honor or letters of shame. Every single character is as deeply compelling as the world they live in.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a remarkable novel and hands down one of the best of the year. From the writing to the characters to the themes to the dialogue to the worldbuilding, there was nothing I didn’t love about it. The ending leaves the door open enough for another installment and if I had my way we’d have many, many more.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is available from Candlewick Press.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.