Axie Oh’s 2022 The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a stand-alone fantasy novel.
Each year, a different beauty is chosen as the Sea God’s bride. Perhaps the chosen ones enjoy lives of unparalleled luxury under the sea; perhaps their bones are moldering on the sea floor. What is clear is that the sacrifices are in vain. No matter how many brides set out in their lonely boats, annual storms still batter the kingdom. The Sea God has turned his back on his people.
Shim Cheong is the latest bride. Joon, who is in love with Shim, is determined to save her from whatever fate waits in the sea. Joon’s sister Mina is determined to save both. Thus, when the Sea King’s dragon appears to collect its living tribute, it finds a boat with three passengers, not one. Quick-thinking Mina volunteers first and is carried off.
When Mina arrives at her destination in the Spirit Realm, she finds no doting Sea God waiting for her. The one known as the Sea God sleeps.
Yet even though he slumbers, there is a very real link between Sea God and his brides, a link that manifests as a red ribbon. This link makes the Sea God vulnerable. If a human bride should die — and dying is something to which humans are prone — then the god might die as well.
Lord Shin is the god’s faithful guardian. To prevent rival gods from endangering the sleeper by targeting Mina, Lord Shin steals Mina’s soul and severs the connection between Mina and her divine husband. This is traumatic but not fatal. The most obvious consequence is that Mina loses her voice.
Despite her lowly status, her mortal weaknesses, and lack of a voice, Mina sets out to solve the mysteries behind her people’s misery. Why did the Sea God become deaf to his people’s pleas? Why does the Sea God sleep? Is there anything Mina can do to solve these mysteries?
Perhaps there is nothing she can do. Perhaps she will simply be the latest in a long series of unsuccessful brides.
Shim Cheong is, of course, based on the famous pansori (chanted folktale) Simcheongga. While readers don’t need to be familiar with Simcheongga to enjoy this book, familiarity will add some depth and dimension to the story.
Familiarity with the Korean inspiration may also head off readers who want to compare the story to the Japanese anime Spirited Away. I’ve noticed that articles about Asian fantasies compare them to Spirited Away, just as all Scandinoirs are compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Why, I even read a blurb for a mystery set in the Netherlands that compared it to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo … even though the book was in no way Scandinavian nor especially noir. Just as the source Oh draws on here is Korean, and not Japanese.
But to put this book in another bin: it’s yet another book in which gods are essentially indifferent to mortal suffering. None of these gods are omnipotent and many have mortal character flaws. Which reminds me of the (entirely fictitious) Scott-Hemingway exchange, but adapted, as: the gods are different from you and me; they have more power.
Oh is adept at juggling a fairly large cast of characters, at delivering a mystery whose solution is not immediately obvious, and at setting out a plot about whose outcome the reader will care. All this in just 300-odd pages. While the prose is clearly aimed at young adult readers (which is also suggested by the length), this book was a diverting read for this old curmudgeon.