I love how much of a trend towards mermaid books there are this year! The Surface Breaks, To Kill a Kingdom, The Seafarer’s Kiss – all have a different take on mermaids, and Sea Witch is a great addition to the stack.
Book: Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by Netgalley for fair review.
Sea Witch is an origin story for Ursula, the villain of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (though she has a different name). Perversely, I’m going to start at the end of the novel, as really, only the epilogue, set 50 years after the main story, has anything to do with the film: once we get there, the nods are strong, with dialogue very close to the Disney film, if not directly lifted from it. Even down to the polyps on the floor of the cave.
I actually found this section to be my least favourite. I thought that the rest of the novel had been so original that it was a shame to be so transparent in the use of the source material, and also, so much of an effort had been put into the Danish setting, ie the Hans Christian Andersen side, that to go all-Disney was a bit weird. It was almost as if the author had pitched a Little Mermaid retelling, then got to the end of the book and gone ‘oops, better put that in’. However, it is a lovely and well-crafted homage to a brilliant film, and it’s really cool to see that scene from another perspective – I just didn’t feel it was necessary.
On to the main content of the story. We follow Evie, a girl with forbidden magic, and her best friend Nik, the prince, as they cope with life after their other best friend, Anna, drowned. After Nik nearly drowns too, four years later, things begin to take a turn for the weird, and we end up playing out the Little Mermaid story we all know – the arrival of a mysterious girl, who must gain the love of a prince within three days. But Annemette, the new arrival, is so very like Anna that Evie begins to wonder if there’s more going on…
This main present-day storyline is interspersed with flashbacks to the day of Anna’s drowning. The flashbacks are told in third person by a detached narrator, without reference to names. This sometimes makes it a little bit difficult to tell who the scene is looking at, as there’s a lot of ‘the boy’ and ‘the girl’, when there are two of each involved. However, I appreciated being able to view the pivotal scene from all four pairs of eyes – everyone involved was deeply traumatised by that scene, so I think it added a lot to the complexity of the impact of that day, to have those different takes outlined.
‘Complex’ is definitely the word for this book. By the end of it, I was reading astonishingly fast, even for me, as the twists and turns and danger and excitement took over. I finished it at 2am because I just couldn’t put it down at bedtime. My favourite thing is when fairytale retellings take a sharp turn somewhere in the traditional storyline, and Sea Witch definitely hit the mark for me. I was genuinely startled by some of the plot.
I think the best testament to this, though, was that even if this had been a straightforward retelling, as it originally looked like it was going to be, I would have been happy to read that. The writing is great, and although I’ve seen complaints from others about the pacing, I actually loved the way that Henning built the characters and their world up. It made the ending all the more powerful and bittersweet.
I loved Evie. She’s a really compelling heroine, and seems genuinely kind, which is something YA heroines often lean away from. A Hufflepuff heroine who just loves is fab to see, and I loved that she stayed true to herself to the very end. It would have been tempting to make her selfish and ambitious and Slytherin, since she is an Ursula-figure, but this was so much better and allowed for real depth in the story. Nik, too, is a delight – he’s a romantic! An idealist! A soft, emotional boy whose strength is in his heart, not his biceps. I loved him. No toxic masculinity here. I can’t talk about Annemette without spoilers, but suffice to say I thought her characterisation was stunning and perfect, too.
Honestly, I’m still thinking about this book. It’s a study in the ramifications of your actions, and it’s also a very enjoyable tale of magic, mermaids and love. Just go get it. Read it now. It’s out today, so you have no excuse!