Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
My rating: 3.5ish of 5 stars
This novel gives us the story of how the Sea Witch in the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid came to be. However, be forewarned that there is very little Little Mermaid in this story, for mermaid fans. This book is a hard one for me to rate. There are things I greatly enjoyed about the story but other aspects, including in pacing and plot structure, that I struggled with.
First I'll look at what I enjoyed. Henning has done a great job, no doubt thanks to careful research, in capturing some aspects of Nordic sea-faring culture. She has also given us a historically accurate picture of post-Reformation Denmark, when they really used to burn witches, especially during the reign of Christian IV, and the Skt Hans Aften celebrations on June 23 that commemorate those wonderful times by burning ragdoll witches. Read more here. That said, I felt that the character development, which took up about the first 80% of the book, was uneven, and some of the plot was unconvincing and oddly paced.
I was troubled from the outset by the relationship between a royal heir and his "best friend," a fisherman's daughter, as even being something that was permissible in this era. (Yes, I know, this is a story based on part of a fairy tale, and therefore requires suspension of belief, but what can I say? If you're doing research to make this story historically grounded in Danish intolerance of witchcraft then intolerance due to social class is absolutely fair play.) Even the fact that the heir to the throne's best friend was a female was a tough sell. While I felt the character backstory for the protagonist Evie and her friend Anna was thin but plausible as a motivation for Evie being willing to take such risks for Annemette, some of Evie's other relationships, principally with Iker, seemed thinly built. While I felt Evie liked Iker "because, handsome prince who likes me" I was unsure, in fact to the very end (Spoiler*)[ when he turned on her so quickly (hide spoiler)] why Iker liked Evie. Was it to torment his cousin Nik? Because she was prettier than all the other pretty brunettes? Other aspects of Evie's relationships puzzled me. Even her relationship with her Tante Hansa just felt thin, as did that with her father. Because of Tante Hansa's being a witch, you would think her role in Evie's life would be focused on teaching her. Why is Evie so very unschooled in magic (almost dangerously so, frankly)? Is this Tante Hansa's caution or Evie's preference/fear? Does the trauma of her mother's death plague her? Doesn't this leave her at risk of accidental magic? And why aren't villagers more unsettled by Evie's going about and touching their boats with stones? Is she always able to cast these protections unobserved? Then there is the magic itself, which also felt poorly developed at times. The way spells were cast felt thinly sketched, relying on chanting a few times in old Norse and unexplained use of magical objects like gemstones that a fisherman's daughter seemed unlikely to possess.
My other complaint was the novel's pacing, which I see some reviewers have also commented on. From my perspective, especially since this is Henning's debut novel, is that this is mostly an editorial issue. Stronger editorial direction might have brought more action central to the story earlier in the book. The use of flashbacks as a plot device (well-emphasized to readers with italicized font usage) didn't work to create a sense of momentum.
I still enjoyed aspects of this book, as I stated above, and will be curious to see where Sarah Henning's eyes turn next. Her development of historical underpinnings is well done and makes her an author to follow.
*Until he abruptly turned on her....
I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Katherine Tegen Books via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
View all my reviews