There is a new trend in the YA scene – mermaids – and I am obsessed. Who does not love mermaids? They are beautiful, power, magical women who are often deadly and get to spend their days frolicking in the sea. Sign me up! An influx of books with mermaid premises have surfaced (sorry for the terrible pun!) over the last two years – Sea Witch by Sarah Henning being a front runner that garnered a lot of attention. While it debuted in July 2018 and I am a little behind in reading, I recently was ready to dive in (I promise, I will stop).
When I picked up this book, I was under the impression it was a retelling of The Little Mermaid, originally pinned by Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen. I would not say this is completely true, while there are absolutely elements of The Little Mermaids fairytale, I would consider it much more of an origin story of the Sea Witch, or ‘Ursula’ for you Disney fans.
The story begins by introducing us to two young friends, Evelyn (or Evie) and Anna. These girl’s young lives are plagued by misfortune and marred by death. In the opening chapter, Evelyn almost loses her life, but instead loses her mother. We learn that their mutual friend, Nik, slipped while hopping across rocks next to the sea and was poised to hit his head directly on the if Evie had not thrown herself down and absorbed the impact (but she received a fatal injury in the process). Her mother, a witch, sacrifices herself to save her daughter’s life. Finally, we learn that Anna drowned when she was eleven, leaving Nik and Evie alone.
The story picks up five years later and finds Evie still grieving the loss of her best friend. She is mostly an outsider with the exception of Nik, who is the prince of her land and has remained a close friend, as well as his cousin Iker. People view her as trying to overcome her social standing by befriending the royal prince. She is seen as strange and homely. Evie herself separates herself from the village people because she is harboring a secret – she is a witch. While not as powerful as her mother or her aunt, who has stepped up to raise Evie in place of her mother.
Very quickly we are introduced to a girl who looks just like Anna. First, Evie sees her in the water through a porthole. Then, the mysterious girl saves Nik when he is swept overboard (man these people have bad luck!). Finally, she appears directly to Evie and introduces herself as Annamette. Annamette claims she is from a faraway land and a farmer’s daughter but her rouse is quickly demolished and her magic revealed – she is a mermaid. Cue the Little Mermaid retelling.
Essentially, Annamette has a similar conundrum to the Little Mermaid. She must make a man fall in love with her within a few short days to stay human or she will turn to sea foam. However, the plot thickens as Evie questions Annamette’s true motives and whether or not this mysterious girl is Anna. Nothing is as it seems and possible that friendship may not survive the deadly secrets and dark magic that is penetrating the small village.
Because I went into this thinking that Sea Witch was just a retelling of the Little Mermaid, I was surprised by the dark and magical elements that strayed from the typical mermaid lore. Sarah’s prose was beautiful and I was hooked from the first sentence ‘The sea is a fickle witch.’ While this was not an epic fantasy that drew you in by the characters, the writing was more than enough to keep you intrigued.
I found myself feeling sorry for Evie throughout the whole book. She mostly receives the short end of the stick and continually sacrifices for those she cares about – even when the same courtesy is not extended. Throughout the book, she is ostracized by all of those around her and has an internal monologue that constantly telling her that she is not good enough, that she does not belong. While I do not normally care for characters who are not strong-willed or could be considered closer to a doormat than a heroine – what makes a better villain origin story? Similar to Disney’s origin story for Maleficent – Evie’s transformation into the Sea Witch is marked with tragedy, misbegotten good intentions, and a desire to fit in.
Overall, I enjoyed this fast read – so much so I read it in one sitting. It is magical and beautifully written and while you may know how it turns out, you will find yourself turning pages quickly to see how it gets there.