Sea Witch, by Sarah Henning

By now, you all know my obsession with retold fairy tales. I’ve reviewed a few of them on here, but I have a special case in Sea Witch. Which is to say it came to my attention at a time when I was a little bored with the genre in question (it was bound to happen after a time). But I was compelled to read it after a series of connections put me in correspondence with Sarah Henning, who authored today’s book. Long story short, I was looking for writing career advice, and a friend of a friend introduced me to her. Because she was so kind and helpful to me when I sought her advice, I decided I would give back to her by reading, and consequently reviewing, her debut book.

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In nineteenth century Denmark, sixteen-year-old Evie and her two friends, the crown princes Nik and Iker, are still mourning the death of their friend Anna, who drowned in the sea four years before. But a grand annual festival is upon them, so it seems as though they’ll have a reprieve from their grief. But then, a strange girl named Annemette, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna, shows up with a proposition: that Evie help her find her true love, and help her earn a human soul. It turns out Annemette is a mermaid, who knows Evie’s secret: that she is a witch. Together, they’ll work a little magic not only to give Annemette a soul, but to reveal a few more secrets about why Annemette has truly come.

First of all, this book sets the record straight on the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. Before Disney touched her up, she wasn’t a villain, as much as she was a plot device provider for the titular mermaid. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Henning paints a sympathetic heroine in Evie: she is kind and resourceful, if a little impulsive. You believe in her friendship with Nik and Iker, even if it might be obvious from the beginning that she’ll find love with one or the other. And through her interactions with Annemette, you get enough information about her old friend Anne that you feel like you knew her too.

This is an enjoyable journey to watch unfold. We, along with Evie and Nik, are so captivated by Annemette that we wonder at her presence too—why she truly showed up at this place at this time. Under the beauty and fun of the festival, there is also something very sinister at work, and you wait a good while for something to happen.

But this is where I inevitably have to point out some things that took me out of the story.

While I believe in the relationships painted here, I didn’t truly buy into what levels of destruction are desired in the climax. In order for that level of revenge to want to be taken, I wanted to feel more how truly connected that person was to what they’re avenging. It works all right in the end, but for me to feel truly disgusted by what that person does in vengeance, they could show a little more joy and emotion at getting the chance to see it again.

Something I appreciate about this book, though, is that it doesn’t just stop when the sea witch comes into herself. You see the original fairy tale come into play, with the sea witch asking the mermaid for the price of her voice, and it brings the story full circle. It does well, again, to emphasize that the sea witch was not wicked, as much as smart and powerful.

It might be a long time before I dive headfirst (no pun intended) back into fairy tale retellings, and it’s a risky move to make your debut novel a fairy tale retelling, but obviously, the sea witch as we know her—or, I suppose, as Hans Christian Andersen wrote her—was in good hands.

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