ARC Review: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall // a f/nonbinary pirate fantasy, then why am I disappointed?

I was sent this book as an advance copy by the publisher via NetGalley for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.


A desperate orphan turned pirate and a rebellious imperial daughter find a connection on the high seas in a world divided by colonialism and threaded with magic.

Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian.

Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.

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komb girl reverse
please appreciate this reverse kombucha girl meme i made specifically to show my progression from “this is ok” to “actually…”

To understand the different stages of emotions I’m going through while thinking about how to review this book, you have to keep in mind the kombucha girl TikTok, except make it ten times milder because I wish this book inspired the level of emotional investment as kombucha girl went through.

This weird intro to say: I have….some? good things to say about this, and the rest was a big mess, but I also can’t bring myself to hate it because that would be too strong of an emotion to apply to this.

The premise of this was what drew me in, the female/nonbinary romance with a side of piracy sounded too good to be true, and, well. You get where I’m going. The romance was just there, I guess. It was okay? It was too fast to be believable, but that often is with sapphic romance, and I was willing to not let it bother me. I wasn’t even bothered when the romance caused the nonbinary lead to take some pretty hasty and drastic decisions like leaving behind her only family, because I felt like that was part of her character arc in escaping what is essentially a codependent relationship with her brother. Other than that, I never felt much for the romance at all.

With that premise I was still willing to see what else was there, and as it turns out, there was a lot.

As the title suggests, the book is tripartite, with each arc being almost self contained. I really liked the mermaid (as a creature, not so much the book part named after her), I didn’t care about the witch and the sea would have been cool if it was explored more.

And here lies the key to my review: if anything had been explored more, it would’ve ended up being such a cool book, instead it tried to be so much that it became very little. I really see where it was trying to go, but I would have appreciated less elements added to the story and more exploration of the ones that could have made it a quite unique pirate book.

If I tried to mentally remove any particular element from this novel, I would end up exactly with the same book. I never felt like there was anything to it that was necessary to the story, not even the sea as the deux ex machina, not even the mermaid (although I liked her), the witch only to a certain extent. Magic was probably the best developed aspect of the middle section of the book, but then it was used twice and never again. The Sea only acted when it was convenient. The book started as a clear-cut dual POV then it kept adding POVs, one of which I understood the significance of and the other was just annoying.

But by far the thing I’m most disappointed with, that could have saved the whole book and kept me reading and hoping until the end, was all the big talk about the mysterious and probably sexy nonbinary Pirate Supreme, only for them to appear and speak like two sentences? And they didn’t even do anything badass???? I feel cheated.

All this to say, there was so much and I think everything, from the characters to the plot, would have benefited from having less but better developed.

There were also things I personally really don’t want to read in my queer romances. Without making any big or generalized statements, but speaking of personal preference I would like to never see another supposedly queernormative fantasy book use homophobia so casually. In the spirit of the rest of the book, this too was used once or twice without any development or raison d’être, and as a queer person reading it to, you know, do some escapism and consume a sapphic romance, I’m tired as fuck.

To add to this, of course the lesbian character is shipped away by her awful family to marry a man she’s never met. Of course in the course of the book she meets said man and he’s a piece of shit, as are all of the other men she meets. I cannot properly put this into words eloquently but when men (yes, all of them) pose a constant threat to your life as a (queer) woman, the constant threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, in a book that’s supposed to be about a sapphic romance is not something I welcome. I have DNF’d a book with a very similar premise to this for this reason alone, and I have not done so here because I wanted to give a (new to me) author of color a chance.

I can’t speak about the nonbinary representation, but I think it was nice to show that there is not one way to be nonbinary. The Pirate Supreme uses they/them while Flora/Florian uses she/he and exists as both a boy and a girl. I do wonder what Black and specifically Black nonbinary readers think, though, about this character being written by a non-Black author.

Overall, while reading I didn’t have too many issues focusing or wanting to see where everything was going, and there were things I liked or things I wanted to see more of (and only by continuing I realized they wouldn’t go anywhere). Most of my (mostly negative) thoughts in this review come from a post-reading analysis, whereas my main thought while reading was “this is perfectly average, there’s only a few things that bother me”. And I still think that, in a way: there is a place for average novels, and me reviewing it quite negatively shouldn’t deter you from trying this book out yourself.

While this is a standalone, it left enough things open for a potential sequel, including, very annoyingly, an epilogue by the least-important POV character, but I don’t think I will check it out if it ever comes out.

TWs: torture, death, murder, mutilation, blood, violence, alcoholism, homophobia, mention of sexual assault

2 thoughts on “ARC Review: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall // a f/nonbinary pirate fantasy, then why am I disappointed?

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