Trying Even in the Face of Hopelessness: Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea is at once a lush, compassionate reimagining that focuses on the agency of young women and also a beautiful homage to its source story.

Mina’s homeland has suffered the whims of an uncaring god for a century. Each year they sacrifice a bride to the Sea God in the hopes of assuaging his wrath, but only his true bride can break the curse and bring an end to the devastating storms that have ravaged their lands and killed countless people. It is said that their benevolent emperor was murdered by a conqueror, and the Sea God, who’d loved him like a brother, fell into devastation and a grief so powerful he began the storms. Now wars rage across the leaderless, storm-scarred landscape. Year after year they offer brides, young women sent to the Spirit Realm or perhaps to drown in the vicious sea, and year after year the storms start again.

Until it’s Shim Cheong’s turn. The most beautiful girl in the village, she’s destined for sacrifice. She’s also the beloved of Mina’s brother, Joon, and when she faces her fate, he breaks the rules to follow her into the sea. Their parents passed away when Mina was small; she was raised by her grandmother and her brothers. And so it is the only thing she can do to offer herself as a bride instead of Shim Cheong. To save her brother and his beloved. She would do anything, so they might live. To Mina, the true sacrifice would be to do nothing in the face of such suffering.

Her journey into the Spirit Realm is full of surprises, magic, and perhaps even love. She meets a series of spirits, lesser gods, and creatures out of Korean mythology, none as intriguing and infuriating as young Lord Shin from the Lotus House. When Mina loses her soul and finds herself tangled in the Red String of Fate, she must navigate the Spirit Realm to wake the Sea God from his curse and save her people once and for all. But nothing is quite what it seems in the Spirit Realm, including who she meets and the very story she’s been told about the Sea God himself. Mina must rely on her faith in herself and the fate she chooses if she wants to heal her world.

This is a desperately beautiful read. Axie Oh delivers a character-driven first-person adventure, and Mina’s headstrong emotions guide us through the wondrous, atmospheric Spirit Realm. This is the sort of book you want to live within, to dive beneath the waves and wake to the shimmering, treacherous world of spirits and imugi, fate and gods, gasping as the seascape unfolds. Oh has crafted a richly drawn sort of portal fantasy, immersive, evocative, and singing with palpable love. It’s not an easy task, to balance a beloved story with a fresh take, but I think Oh has thoroughly delivered on this ambition. Shim Cheong is very much at the heart of this book, but it’s Mina’s story, and hers is one rooted in agency. This story is so much one of fate, yet through Mina, the reader comes to understand that genuine love must be freely given. It’s a powerful, effective balance.

Much of this book centers on story. On the stories Mina’s been told by her grandmother, on the stories she tells to the Sea God, on the stories they’ve all been told about their history. It feels like an homage to story itself, its ability to construct, to obscure, to convey truth and hope. And Oh wields the stories within her story to maximum effect. Tautly plotted, there are several thoroughly satisfying twists that made me gasp aloud, puzzle pieces slotting into place.

This is also a deeply emotional book. We meet Mina and her people as they face brutal, ceaseless catastrophe. They’re forced to sacrifice one of their daughters every year as a last resort to spare as many lives as they can, and truly, they seem to be helpless in the face of horribly uncaring gods. In a book that centers so much on family, found family, and ancestral guidance, we really feel the horrors of the storms as they wrench people apart. And yet, at the core of the Sea God’s wrath is grief. Oh leans into how grief can unmake a person, and when that person is powerful, others suffer. There isn’t, in fact, an easy monster here. Part of this story is the necessity of hope, and forgiveness.

That’s what makes Mina such a perfect protagonist for this story. She’s a brave, stalwart girl, and she’s motivated by compassion. Complacency is the hard route, for her, and she has such a beautiful capacity for love. Even in the face of waves of overwhelming grief and what feels like hopelessness, Mina believes in herself. I think her strength will guide my heart long after I’ve finished her story.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is available from Feiwel & Friends.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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