By Maggie Tokuda-Hall, 2020
This is a mer book that I absolutely loved, one with a totally original lore that comes to life in a parallel historical-fantasy world of colonialism, witchcraft and piracy. The Mermaid the Witch and the Sea was one of my favourite recently published mer novels, and another rare book which centralises people of colour as protagonists and offers a historical setting that speaks directly to our own world’s colonial history. It explores our treatment of the ocean and marine life, and issues of gender, class, ethnicity and identity. There’s also a queer romance between the two main characters.
Characters and Story
The story revolves around Evelyn, an ‘imperial’ girl being sent to the colonies for an arranged marriage she’s not interested in, and Flora, a pirate aboard a fraudulent ship which sells its unwitting passengers into slavery. The two characters become tangled in a dangerous web of overlapping agendas being pursued by imperialists intent on expanding their empire at any human cost, rogue pirates who drink mermaid blood, and pirates loyal to the sea who act as protectors of mermaids. The characters of the mermaid, the witch and the sea (a sentient being almost like a spirit who provides the POV in some chapters) all play a role in shaping Evelyn and Flora’s eventual fates.
Much of the reason I loved this book is that although it takes place in a fantasy world, the characters’ experiences seem so well rooted in real historical processes. What I’m talking about here is the believable inner responses to challenging societies stratified along lines of race, class and gender in historical traditions. I really feel like the book succeeds in navigating the intersections of characters living in this overtly unequal colonial world of overlapping identities, cultures and political agendas.
The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, switching POV, with the two main protagonists representing, in many ways, opposite backgrounds. Evelyn is a wealthy, upper class, highly educated imperial girl of the dominant cultural/ethnic group and a send-away bride. Flora, who also goes by Florian, is a black, bi-gender orphan turned pirate from the colonies looking to improve their life.
Already in just these two characters there’s a lot to take in of their layered identities and very opposite backgrounds. I’ve rushed the explanation of it but in the book we see their circumstances unfold through glimpses of their life experiences which enable us to deeply empathise with both characters.
Flora/Florian at first seems to represent the classic ‘female posing as a male aboard a ship’ storyline but interestingly everyone else aboard knows. The other – all male -pirates seem to accept a female within the crew but demand to see the markers of masculinity from Florian while on board. There are moments when you question whether it’s a complete performance or whether the changing nature of the character’s outward gender is also happening internally. Over the course of the book Flora/Florian actually begins to understand their gender as a duality and embraces both girl and boy as who they are.
Evelyn is a kindhearted character who learns the truth about what the imperial class she belongs to represents to the rest of the world. She deconstructs the myths she’s been taught about the world beyond the imperial capital. Evelyn also learns to find acceptance outside the rigid confines of her social class, the markers of which she often has to abandon or hide rather than rely on (as she’s been taught to do) in order to survive betrayal.
A lot of the characters have changing – or secret – identities and the imperials, rogue pirates and loyal pirates send spies and infiltrators into the other groups. With all these overlapping, shifting and sometimes contrasting true and false identities, loyalties, politics and persuasions, betrayal can emerge at any moment and sometimes they are shockers. Perhaps with the exception of Evelyn, all of the main characters are somewhat antiheroes and do, or have done, awful things. Within all of the social groups – imperials, colonial subjects, pirates – rogue and loyal, there are characters whose point of view we at times empathise with.
One thing I loved about the book is that the places and cultures explored are based on familiar ones in our own world and our own real history of colonialism. The dominant imperial class in this story seem to belong to a culture modelled on the upper classes of Japan – the Empire, its metropole and colonies are all fictional entities and places but there are obvious cultural markers linking the imperials to the Japan of our world like the wearing of kimonos and names like Hasegawa. Their imperial culture, methods, philosophy and grip over the ‘known world’ strongly resembles European (especially British) imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Racial hierarchy isn’t explicitly discussed beyond the fact that the imperials are at the top. Black characters seem to face the kind of challenges that suggest they are, as they were in real colonial history, pushed to the bottom of the social order. White characters appear to occupy a middle-ground in the imperial world. The pirates, at least the ones loyal to the sea, have a black captain which seems to turn the imperial order on its head.
I heard in an interview with Maggie Tokuda-Hall that the place of origin for Flora/Florian was inspired by Rwanda and Peru and the colony that the characters travel to – the floating islands – was inspired by the landscapes of Greek islands and Colombia. Culturally speaking, for me, the floating islands resemble the real-world colonies that existed in Caribbean islands, the Mascarenes and coasts of South America – vibrant centres of cultural exchange and creolisation, shipping/trade economies, geared to accommodate visiting sailors, and temporary entrepreneurs, extreme inequality, exploitation of people and resources, corruption, an air of ‘backwardsness’, lawlessness, an anything-can-happen remoteness from the ordered imperial homelands, and hubs of witchcraft and piracy.
I feel like the book captures the energy of these colonial spaces, and the attitudes, beliefs and motivations that grew out of them really well. They come across in the perspectives of the characters in a way that feels completely natural given what we see of their past and present circumstances, and you don’t need any knowledge of colonial history for it to make sense.
All these places have their own stories and fables which are retold at key moments. This was a really prominent characteristic of the book that I loved piecing together.
The other important setting of the book which I haven’t mentioned yet is the pirate ship, the Dove, which has its own micro-culture representing everything that undermines both the ordered imperial world and the mission of the other pirates who are devoted to protecting the sea and the mermaids. The ship is a place of extreme cruelty and hardship, driven by totally open selfishness and sadism. Totally open among the crew, that is (they deceive their victims with a false identity). But their open commitment to selfishness contrasts the empire which masks its self interest and violent rule in honour and righteousness to the point that it is genuinely believed.
The fluidity of identity is one of the central themes in the book, as it is in real world colonial history and in the history of mermaids. I’ve already mentioned that a lot of the characters have secret identities, but on top of that, their status or identity itself changes drastically in different settings, whether in the imperial capital, aboard the ship or in the floating islands colony. Their gender may literally change as in the case of Flora/Florian, but we also see moments when it’s uncertain if a character’s gender, class or ethnicity (true or assumed) is going to be taken as the factor which informs their treatment in a particular setting, allowing the agendas of antagonists a lot of flexibility. It also adds to the realistic portrayal of colonial experience and makes space for exciting storylines to unfold. The construction and management of identity through the stories and myths that are retold is another key theme that I really enjoyed.
Running on top of these questions about identity in colonial settings – which you don’t even have to think about if you’re not interested – there’s an epic story full of betrayal, murder, sea battles, witchcraft, daring escapes, mermaids, cutting off fingers and romantic love.
The romance doesn’t dominate the story but it does, by the end, become important. The way the book’s world operates is that, among the pirates, witches and the sea at least, gender and sexuality outside of binary forms and heterosexuality are somewhat accepted or understood. But in the imperial world and among colonial society it doesn’t seem to be accepted. While the characters know what they feel and for whom, they don’t appear to have labels or know of LGBT communities and a lot seems to happen beneath the surface until the very end. There’s much more of a focus on questions, and implications, of gender throughout the book. The consequences of structural oppression of females or women are threaded through the characters’ experiences, from pressures over appearance and limited freedom to self-express, access to education, arranged marriages and arranged fates, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, erasure and silencing in male dominated spaces like the pirate ship and even family households. Female characters resist these things in all kinds of ways, from outwitting opponents to running away to seeking out deeper knowledge than that prescribed, assimilating or disguising their identities, placating aggressors and even by devoting their lives to training among male soldiers to fight as they do (one scene in particular shows the consequences quite graphically when a female character tries to fight male characters within their prescribed parameters of physical violence). In the end though what works for the protagonists is a combination of the rewards of their prior kindness to others including the mermaids, determination and bravery, the coming together of traditional and banned education (from the witch), connection to higher spiritual powers and the ability/willingness to be fluid in their identities and exploit the ignorance and prejudices that make enemies fail to anticipate their moves.
Aside from the scene I just mentioned there’s quite a bit of violence and cruelty in the book which usually I hate reading about… but if it didn’t include that I’d feel like it wouldn’t have been as honest about life in the period of history it draws on (I realise it’s fantasy and the author can do what she wants but I think her accuracy in portraying some of the injustices of colonial realities – even on a micro level of individual experience – is respectful). The honesty about violence also makes the motivations of the characters as well as the nature of the oppressions they live through seem realistic. Having said that, the main culprit of colonial cruelty – race based slavery and other forms of coerced labour – is mentioned but not really explored. It’s such a huge topic that perhaps it would have seemed unfairly glossed over if it was a part of the story but not centralised. It was at least mentioned and some hints of its legacy and continued existence in some places were made with the book being set after slavery had been abolished in most places in the Empire. There’s also a hint that it might have more of a prominent theme in the sequel.
There are also themes of substance abuse and our treatment of the seas and sea creatures but, I am going to discuss those when I discuss the mermaids of the book…
The mer-mythology of this book is a really exciting and unique one. It holds that mermaids are born of the sea’s memories. They keep the sea’s memories in their blood and enable the sea to balance itself according to its ancient knowledge. The sea cares immensely for the mermaids not only as the carriers of its memories, but as daughters.
Because the mermaids are made of memories, their blood is like a hallucinogenic drug for humans that gives incredible visions of those memories. But drinking it also erases human memories. People can become addicted to drinking it (like the nameless captain of the Dove – the main antagonist) to the point where they basically have no memories of who they are. It erases identity. The bigger problem is that when mermaids are hunted for their blood the sea loses its memories and becomes less able to balance itself and less predictable in who it will help and who it will destroy. The pirates who are loyal to the sea do not want that because they want to remain in favour and have their commitment rewarded. So they seek to protect mermaids from being hunted by blood drinkers like the nameless captain. The pirates in league with the sea are headed by the Pirate Supreme who sails in the ship Leviathan with a mermaid on its flag and sends spies out among other pirate crews to ensure they are not killing mermaids (reminded me a bit of Sea Shepherd). The Pirate Supreme, backed by the power of the sea, is the only real threat to the Imperials who also use spies to promote their own world-conquering agenda.
The mermaids appear beautiful in their own environment of the sea, but once removed they start to deteriorate and lose their beauty as does the one captured on board the Dove. She’s kept in a barrel while the pirates drink her blood for as long a they can keep her alive, though they never learn how to keep mermaids alive in captivity for longer than a short period and they waste life after life. The characters who sympathise with the mermaid, figure out what she needs and allow her to feed her on their own blood while she’s captive are recognised and favoured by the sea.
This story is another example of merfolk (or the sea itself) possessing a special relationship with history, memory and self knowledge – an idea that stems from both African and European mythology, having been merged and developed in colonial/creole settings – something I wrote about in discussions on Lasirenn of Haiti and the mythology surrounding the book The Deep by Rivers Solomon.
The mermaids themselves represent a bridge between people and the power and memories of the sea, like the witch is a bridge to other deeper forms of knowledge. The witch character represents the persecuted providers of knowledge, power and spiritual guidance to oppressed classes in colonial history – she’s like an obeah woman, or bonfam dibwa (or a ‘voodoo lady’ in North American culture). Like all ‘witches’ and spiritual/herbal practitioners in colonial history, she represents a threat to the empire’s monopoly on the power that comes from knowledge of natural remedies and poisons, self knowledge and access to higher spiritual forces. Just like the mermaids, and the sea’s ability to favour pirates, the empire wishes to be rid of witches as a threat to the way they order and control the world.
I won’t give away the ending but let me just say that my romantic sensibilities were rocked, BIG TIME, by glistening, black, opalescent fish tales in love and death. Definitely glad I read this book and I’m really hoping for sequels.