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I'll be honest — Sea Witch by Sarah Henning is one of those books that a significant number of readers probably won't like.
Don't get me wrong; this isn't going to be one of those sanctimonious book reviews that boils down to “you only don't like it because you don't understand it.” I can honestly understand why Sea Witch will not be everyone's cup of tea. That's because it's very much a slow-burn story. (Also, much of it is told in first person present tense, which I know is controversial. I don't always care for the style myself, but I feel it was done well here.) Most of the book revolves around setting things up for the big finish–introducing you to both the characters and the world in extensive detail. I'm actually not sure the book would have held my interest quite as much if I had simply read it instead of listening to the audiobook version narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown (which is excellent, by the way). Because the audio prevented me from being able to speed-read or skip ahead, I was forced to absorb the book the way it was meant to be read—and as a result, I believe I enjoyed it a great deal more than I would have otherwise.
As the title implies, Sea Witch is a prequel to The Little Mermaid fairy tale, though at times it seems unclear whether this is actually a prequel or a retelling. This ambiguity adds to the mystery and suspense that permeates the story even in its quieter moments. The book's setting, appropriately, is a (fictional) coastal European kingdom of the early modern period, with a very Danish culture. The main character is Evie, a teenage girl who lost her best friend Anna to the sea years before. The details of this accident are gradually revealed through flashbacks in between the present-day chapters. Evie has magic in her blood, though she keeps her heritage hidden from the witch-fearing people of the kingdom of Havnestad. Also, she finds herself in that classic young-adult-female-protagonist dilemma—having to choose between two men.
Wait, come back! It's not as tiresome as it sounds. Actually, Evie has already made her choice at the beginning of the story. Though Nik, the crown prince of Havnestad, has been a close friend of hers since childhood, she is in love with the prince's seafaring cousin, Iker. An actual love triangle doesn't really arise until later, and when it does crop up, it doesn't happen in the way you would expect. The real conflict of the story comes from the sudden appearance of a mysterious girl who looks exactly like Evie's lost friend Anna, aside from being older than Anna was when she drowned. The girl, however, is a complete stranger who doesn't know Evie or her friends. She has a secret, one which both the reader and Evie quickly guess — but she's not Anna.
Or is she?
The mystery continues to deepen as the story goes on, and I won't spoil how it all turns out. I had a couple of theories by the time I reached the end, but none of them turned out to be completely accurate. Henning does allow the reader to put the pieces together before Evie does, which heightens the tension as Evie draws closer and closer to a tragic mistake. About three quarters of the way through the book, a sudden twist turns the tension up to eleven, and shatters all the reader's preconceptions. The ending, though not happy by any stretch, is satisfying, since it manages to wrap up all the loose ends (though there is a sequel coming out later this year, which I'm very much looking forward to).
Though Sea Witch takes a long time to reach its truly exciting moments, looking back on the story, I wouldn't have wanted it told in any other way. The big surprises at the end simply wouldn't have carried the same weight if I hadn't become so deeply invested in both the characters and their world first, and it took all those slower-paced chapters to get me to that point. By the time the gut-wrenching events of the climax come, you feel like they're happening to people you know, rather than indistinct cardboard cutouts you're barely familiar with.
Sea Witch has a few significant flaws. At times, Evie came across as a little too clueless, and her decisions didn't always make sense. She was slow on the uptake in figuring certain things out, though this could be attributed to her various conflicting desires and her lingering grief. That said, she certainly doesn't come anywhere close to the foolishness of young adult protagonists like Bella Swan. In fact, ironically, she's almost too mature at times, which ties into another one of the book's minor issues—its teen characters don't always talk or act like teenagers. I'm hesitant to mark this as a flaw, though, since teens from this period of history could be expected to act a little more mature than modern young adults, and since the general lack of childishness in the characters' behavior helps to make the book enjoyable even for adult readers.
Even if you're not sure Sea Witch is going to be your cup of tea, I'd recommend giving it a try anyway. (And definitely get your hands on the Audible version, if you can.) It's a captivating story that manages to stand out even in the slightly crowded market of fairytale retellings. Five out of five poor unfortunate souls.