Author: Axie Oh
Age Category: Young Adult
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publish Date: February 22, 2022
Print Length: 336
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Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is an enthralling feminist retelling of the classic Korean folktale The Tale of Shim Cheong, perfect for fans of Wintersong, Uprooted, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Deadly storms have ravaged Mina’s homeland for generations. Floods sweep away entire villages, while bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. Her people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair. In an attempt to appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hopes that one day the “true bride” will be chosen and end the suffering.
Many believe that Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village–and the beloved of Mina’s older brother Joon–may be the legendary true bride. But on the night Cheong is to be sacrificed, Joon follows Cheong out to sea, even knowing that to interfere is a death sentence. To save her brother, Mina throws herself into the water in Cheong’s stead.
Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city of lesser gods and mythical beasts, Mina seeks out the Sea God, only to find him caught in an enchanted sleep. With the help of a mysterious young man named Shin–as well as a motley crew of demons, gods and spirits–Mina sets out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.
But she doesn’t have much time: A human cannot live long in the land of the spirits. And there are those who would do anything to keep the Sea God from waking…
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA is a tale that touches upon themes of processing grief and the love shared between friends and family. Sixteen-year-old Mina chooses to sacrifice herself to the Sea God in place of Shim Cheong, the love of her brother Joon’s life. In this ultimate act of love between siblings, Mina hopes that Joon will be able to live a full life with Shim Cheong by his side. Once in the Spirit Realm Mina finds the Sea God withdrawn and detached from the world around him. Resolved to find an end to the storms that plague her country, Mina sets out to understand how to help the Sea God overcome his grief.
I’m not familiar with THE TALE OF SHIM CHEONG, the myth that inspired this book; so I can’t speak to that. However, I did get Miyazaki animation vibes while reading, particularly when secondary characters Mask, Kai, and Miki interact with Mina. These three spirits are mysterious and quirky, reminding me a lot of SPIRITED AWAY. Although they don’t have a lot of page time, I found them the most engaging. However, many of the secondary characters are introduced very quickly and thrust into the plot with barely any preemptive build up as to their background or importance. Overall, I found that this was a problem throughout the book that also affected the world-building.
The publishers marketed this as a young adult fantasy novel. But I thought the writing, characterization, and world-building were on the younger side of this genre. Frankly, I felt it should have been categorized as upper middle grade. The writing style is simplistic and to-the-point. The plot is fast-paced and doesn’t allow for much introspection or character growth. Perhaps this is more commonplace in middle grade books; I wouldn’t know as I don’t read them. However, for a YA book and the amount of raving I saw, I expected the characters and the story to be more fleshed out.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, which was disappointing because the Spirit Realm has so. much. potential. The world-building has so much potential. There are so many different gods and goddesses and mythical beasts mentioned, but barely any exploration beyond that. Instead the characters felt flat, the conversation stilted, and the romance underdeveloped. The romance felt so random that I think this story would’ve worked fine without it. I also felt like the author didn’t explain a lot of the plot elements, or that the solutions to any hardships were too convenient.
Additionally, I found it somewhat puzzling that the marketing bills this as a feminist retelling. (Again, I can’t speak to the original myth.) Perhaps this is a hot take, but I think THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA barely squeaks by as feminist.
Just because there’s a main female character who isn’t afraid to voice her opinions, or has a strong bond with her grandmother, doesn’t make it a feminist retelling. Yes, Mina takes charge of her life and decides to sacrifice herself to save another girl. But, instead, what about trying to change the tradition of sacrificing a girl every year to the Sea God in an effort to stop the storms? Or why not question these types of traditions? And, once Mina reaches the Spirit Realm, she constantly needs rescuing. Despite knowing that she’s vulnerable in the Spirit Realm, she puts herself in questionable situations; she doesn’t ask the right questions; and she doesn’t (at the very least) ask how she can protect herself. While I don’t expect a 16-year-old to act like an adult, I also don’t expect one to act like they’re still in grade school.
If you can’t tell by now, unfortunately this book didn’t work for me. I think a younger age group would enjoy this. In fact, the subtlety of any feminist themes (i.e., the voicing of one’s opinions as a girl; a quest run by a girl) are probably appropriate for middle grade. But I think they’re too subtle and simplistic for the YA age group.
Content warnings: blood
Reading format: Kindle e-book