Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s 2020 The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is a secondary universe fantasy.
Lady Evelyn Hasegawa’s betrothal to wealthy officer Finn Callum promises financial security to her debt-ridden aristocratic parents. This is an arranged marriage; she’s never met her groom, who lives at a distant imperial outpost in the Floating Islands. Evelyn must take a long sea voyage to join him, a voyage from which she will almost certainly never return.
⸮But this is a sacrifice her parents are willing to make.⸮
Evelyn and a casket full of worldly goods are sent off on the good ship Dove. She’s anxious, of course: a new land, an unknown husband. She would be even more anxious if she knew that Dove is captained by a complete villain and crewed by people who are just as bad.
Dove’s Nameless Captain is addicted to mermaid blood, which, among other things, erases memory. The Captain sees the loss of memory as a good thing: it frees him to act on his impulses. Thus his bold entrepreneurial schemes, which involve enticing hapless passengers to board the Dove, then imprisoning them and selling them as slaves.
The captain has heretofore limited himself to lowborn victims few would miss. Now he has a bolder plan. If he seizes aristocratic passengers, perhaps their families will pay lavish ransoms! And if they don’t, well, no doubt the aristocratic slaves will command a high price.
Evelyn is assigned a servant from the crew, a certain Florian. Florian is not who they seem to be. Florian was once Flora, a starving foundling. She and her brother Alfie found a haven on the Dove, where Flora has reinvented themself as the murderous pirate Florian.
Florian and Alfie are well aware that life on the Dove can be precarious and short. Now that they’re older, wiser, and have a few coins, it is time to escape. The plan: guard Evelyn until she is sold, take their pay, escape. It is a simple, workable plan, which is confounded by an unanticipated mutual attraction between prisoner and pirate. They will escape together. Adventures follow.
As to that casket: women pack their goods in the casket in which they will eventually be buried, to signify that as far as their birth families are concerned, they are essentially dead. Odd custom. But then the empire can be just as harsh to the lesser members of its population (lesser includes women) as it is to those it conquers and crushes.
Had I read this book when I wrote my tor-dot-com piece on terrible parents, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea would definitely have made my list. At first glance, Evelyn’s parents seem self-centred, but we soon find that they’re worse than that. I will not go into details.
When we meet Evelyn, she in love with her servant girl; she’s heartbroken when the servant is left behind (lucky servant). Soon afterward, Evelyn falls for Florian. Which is to say that for her, passion appears triggered by proximity. This does not lead me to believe that Evelyn and Florian’s romance will be of the heroic faithful-unto-death type. I could be wrong. Later volumes will tell.
As you might suspect, the romance didn’t do much for me. However, there are a number of subplots that did. Readers are treated to plots involving imperial ambitions, espionage, escape, and piratical conspiracies, all of which involve the Dove, its crew, and its passengers. If the subplot in hand does not please, wait a few pages for the next one to arrive. This book is a page-turner. If that’s what you like, you might like this.