This YA fantasy retelling of the Tale of Shim Cheong is as gorgeous as its cover!
Book: The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Publication date: 22nd February 2022
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Hodderscape. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death is a central subject, with most of the book taking place in a land populated by spirits; minor violence and injury; mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation (not graphic); discussion of miscarriage and child loss.
Deadly storms have ravaged Mina’s homeland for generations. Floods sweep away entire villages, while bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. Her people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair. In an attempt to appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hopes that one day the “true bride” will be chosen and end the suffering.
Many believe that Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village—and the beloved of Mina’s older brother Joon—may be the legendary true bride. But on the night Cheong is to be sacrificed, Joon follows Cheong out to sea, even knowing that to interfere is a death sentence. To save her brother, Mina throws herself into the water in Cheong’s stead.
Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city of lesser gods and mythical beasts, Mina seeks out the Sea God, only to find him caught in an enchanted sleep. With the help of a mysterious young man named Shin—as well as a motley crew of demons, gods and spirits—Mina sets out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.
But she doesn’t have much time: A human cannot live long in the land of the spirits. And there are those who would do anything to keep the Sea God from waking…
This is such a lovely read – I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m a bit burned out on YA fantasy at the moment, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be blown away by this book, but I ended up having the best time! It’s completely enthralling from the first page. I wasn’t familiar with the Korean story of Shim Cheong before reading this book, so I didn’t know which elements were drawn from the folktale and which were diversions until I looked up a summary after reading. Despite that, there was a really clear folktale feel to the writing that made this feel so dreamy and timeless, and it really feels like the traditional and original elements are blended perfectly into one cohesive, magical story.
The story is reminiscent of Spirited Away, which it’s been compared to in the marketing materials, in both setting and plot – a girl in a land of spirits which is at once whimsical and treacherous, and a very un-straightforward quest that takes her to explore many different parts of the world. It has that dreamy, cosy magical feeling that you often get with a Studio Ghibli movie – it’s hard to describe, but there’s a sort of gentleness and heart to them even when there’s danger and drama. I really loved the land under the sea and how it was somehow mundane and magical at the same time – plus, there are some fabulously cinematic scenes, including one towards the end of the book that I’m desperate to talk about, but don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say this is a world where dragons and imugi share space with cheeky urchins, where decrepit old houses sit side by side with glimmering palaces, where forgotten gods lurk next to spirits eating street food. It’s really gorgeous as a setting and the description is lovely.
At times, there are hints of generic YA fantasy romance peeping though – Mina is a classic YA heroine in some ways, one who undervalues her skills compared to other girls, but who is the only one who can make a difference in the world due to her uniqueness, for example, and there’s a certain measure of typical YA love interest in mysterious, kind-but-closed-off Shin. However, I do mean it when I say hints, because as the story unfolds we learn that there’s a lot more going on, and I think the familiar elements and how they’re used end up serving the story well – certainly there’s nothing that made me roll my eyes and think I’d seen it before, because the rest of it is so well done. The characters feel very well-moulded by their environments, so their depth is revealed the more you learn about their backstories. I really enjoyed the focus on familial love, which shares fairly equal billing with the romance – there were a couple of moments that actually had me welling up, they were so sweet.
Overall, I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a YA fantasy that has a warm heart, plenty of excitement, and all the charm of a Ghibli film. I’m off to look up Axie Oh’s other work! Five out of five cats.