Friday, March 18, 2022

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

Synopsis (via Goodreads): 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.
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thoughts and opinions are my own. Any quotes I use are from an unpublished copy and may not reflect the finished product.

I wanted to like this one more than I did, but the ARC felt too much like a rough draft and not something close to being finished. There were too many holes and unanswered questions, and not enough character development and plot. Evelyn and Flora/Florian (the two main characters) didn't grow or change throughout the book, and I was so disappointed by their lack of development (too one-dimensional for my liking).

We know Flora and her brother Alfie were orphaned as children, and Flora (I'm going to use Flora instead of Florian for the purpose of this review, just because it's easier. They were genderfluid and went by both names in the story. They changed their name depending on their circumstances and what they needed to do to survive.) Flora has very few memories of their parents, but I wish we knew how they ended up as orphans living on the street. I think it was a defining moment in their lives that the author just glossed over and only vaguely mentioned when it was necessary. They never knew their dad, but Flora remembers their mom hugging her and other warm memories. Why would her mom just up and leave them? Where did she go? It didn't make any sense. We needed more details and background information to really understand how their childhood shaped Flora and their actions.

As it stands, I didn't like Flora as a character. I'm all for morally gray characters in books, but there's still a line that shouldn't be crossed, if you want me to like the MC. For example, Flora has to kill to be accepted onto the Dove (happens right at the beginning), and to ask that of a child. . . it was wrong, but something I could have possibly gotten over if the conditions were right. Unfortunately, Flora looks the other way for YEARS while the ship they're on commits abhorrent atrocities. Not to mention the rape that was alluded to but never specifically confirmed. If you're going to include something as serious as rape, don't do it a disservice by brushing the harsh truths of it under the rug. They mentioned hearing someone's screams behind a locked door, and how no one did anything about it. They also spoke about another character having his way with the prisoners, but it felt wrong to minimize the impact of what was implied. More to the point, I can't support a character that looks the other way when children and innocent people are raped and sold into slavery to have only the gods know what happen to them. I don't care what their reasons are. 

I also didn't like that it was mentioned repeatedly, like the author wanted to make sure we understood what was happening behind those closed doors. It was loud and clear the first time they glazed over the details and essentially used the romance equivalent of fade-to-black. Also, it felt like the author wanted us to sympathize - or at least understand - Rake, but he was a monster. I had no interest in his POV and didn't really know why it was necessary. I understand needing to play a part, but was there not a single genuinely decent person in this book? Killing to survive is one thing, watching others suffer so you don't have to is another. 

As for Evelyn, she was too naive. She also wasn't very compassionate or considerate, even though I think that's how the author wanted to portray her. She left Keiko (her lady's maid, best friend, and sort of lover) without first making sure she'd be taken care of in her absence. She knew what kind of people of her parents were, and yet she did nothing to help her friend. Even when she went to write a letter, she "didn't know what to say," and it all just rubbed me the wrong way. Her basically forcing Florian into learning how to read was also frustrating. I get that it allowed them time to bond for the purposes of this book, but it was still obnoxious that Evelyn felt like she had to help him. 

Insta-love. 😐 It wasn't remotely believable, but somehow these two fell in love amidst the shitshow that was their lives. Lies? "No problem." Betrayal? "You're the one for me, babe!" It was cringe-worthy the way these two jumped from acquaintances to lovers. 

Evelyn's weird connection with the mermaid was never explained, which was really annoying. It was nice to her and seemed to care when she was around, but why? Additionally, her being able to figure out what mermaids ate when no one else has ever been able to . . . a little convenient. Did it propel the story? Yes. Did she immediately tell like 5 people what she discovered? You betcha. Why would she tell people how to keep a captured mermaid alive? Wouldn't that incentivize them to keep stealing and killing the mermaids???? Like, maybe keep that information a secret?

What about the magic? Surely that added something to the story . . . Wrong. It was poorly explained, and I have absolutely no idea how it works. The story aspect was interesting, but if you want me to suspend my disbelief you have to make it believable. There's a song that's mentioned at the start of the book that ends up being VERY IMPORTANT, but it's never mentioned again (in its entirety), and I honestly have no idea why it even mattered. Xenobia seemed to think it did, but I wish the author had explained why. I almost flipped back to look for the song, but then decided it wasn't worth the effort. 

I picked this book up back in 2020 when I received the ARC but stopped reading it when it didn't immediately capture my attention. I thought it was my mood, which ended up being partially true. I was invested enough this time to finish the book, but the ending left me feeling unsatisfied and more than a little annoyed. I really feel like The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was. It felt unfinished, like it was just the bones of the book. I heard there was going to be a sequel, and if it's from that person's POV (the person we see floating around at the end of this book), then I definitely don't want to read it. They were horrible

Absolutely love the cover though! (★★⋆☆☆)


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“Stuff and nonsense. Nonsense and stuff and much of a muchness and nonsense all over again. We are all mad here, don't you know?”
― Marissa Meyer, Heartless