Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m always on the look out for books with queer representation – and by that I mean books that explore all the different kinds of identity, I want books that explore sexuality, books that explore gender identity, books that explore attraction, and all the other different facets of character one can experience. One such book that caught my eye was Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and The Sea which not only promised me some LGBTQIA+ themes – but also had a big boat on the cover which is always a good thing for me! So I leaped in, not really knowing what to expect but excited nonetheless.
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.
Huzzah for pirate ships and wealthy ladies who fall for their guards – where would we be without such things?
No, but really, I enjoy this kind of story, I enjoy it even more when said guard’s plotline is also an exploration of their gender identity and sexuality – YES.
Add in mermaids, magic and even more weirdness and you have me hooked.
I thought this book was a good read, I liked the characters and even though the set-up was familiar, I felt that the way things played out felt fresh and good. This wasn’t just another YA pirate book (the fact that I recently re-read Daughter of the Pirate King is probably worth mentioning here), this book went to some much stranger places throughout the story, and for the most part, it worked in its favour.
I liked the characters, which I wasn’t expecting. At first, I thought I would find Flora/Florian to be far too much of a martyr – constantly letting their drunken brother get away with things and generally feeling sorry for themself, but they grew on me as the book went on. Likewise, Evelyn truly grows throughout the story, she loses a lot of her naivete and became a character I was truly interested in. Their relationship certainly does begin fairly quickly in terms of attraction, and it does have a little bit of that ‘well she’s your prisoner so how ok with this am I?’ feeling to it, but it certainly isn’t an insta-love or Stockholm syndrome kind of situation which was an initial concern. I grew to really enjoy the two of them together and I liked that they bring different aspects of themselves out of one another.
Another thing that I quite appreciated was the fact that Evelyn is aware of her own sexuality – at least to some degree – from the beginning of the book. That’s not to say there isn’t some room for her to explore within the story but it meant that there was some kind of queer foothold from which to climb – I appreciated it!
As with a lot of books I have read recently, I felt as though things petered out towards the end of the book. No spoilers, but at one point our characters just happen to wash up near exactly where they need to be? Perhaps I was missing something but it did feel as though the magical ‘plot’ wand was waved more than once…and I think it was extra-disappointing in a book that had everything I should have loved?
Overall, I think that this is a good book, and if someone was seeking out new YA that had queer characters I might point them this way, but for me it didn’t quite stick the landing where the plot was concerned, which meant that my overall impression was a little bit meh.
My rating: 4/5 stars (probably more a 3.75 but let’s not get pernickety).
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea is out May 5th!
What say you? Will you be picking this up? Let me know in the comments below!