by Sarah Henning
Everyone knows what happens in the end. A mermaid, a prince, a true love’s kiss. But before that young siren’s tale, there were three friends. One feared, one royal, and one already dead.
Ever since her best friend, Anna, drowned, Evie has been an outcast in her small fishing town. A freak. A curse. A witch.
A girl with an uncanny resemblance to Anna appears offshore and, though the girl denies it, Evie is convinced that her best friend actually survived. That her own magic wasn’t so powerless after all. And, as the two girls catch the eyes—and hearts—of two charming princes, Evie believes that she might finally have a chance at her own happily ever after.
But her new friend has secrets of her own. She can’t stay in Havnestad, or on two legs, unless Evie finds a way to help her. Now Evie will do anything to save her friend’s humanity, along with her prince’s heart—harnessing the power of her magic, her ocean, and her love until she discovers, too late, the truth of her bargain.
I received an eARC of Sea Witch from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
When I think of The Little Mermaid I think of the Disney version, and I think we can all agree that Ursula is Disney’s most fabulous villain (with the best villain song), but I have to admit it’s not my favourite fairy tale so retellings never really pull me in the way a retelling of Beauty and the Beast might.
When Sea Witch came along though, a villain origin story set in the original tale’s home of Denmark and drawing on Denmark’s dark history of witch hunts, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.
Set in 19th century Denmark, Sea Witch follows Evie, a witch who must hide what she can do or face the brutal consequences, and her friendship with the prince, Nik. As children, Evie, Nik and their friend Anna always played together, but four years previously they lost Anna to the sea in a dare gone wrong. Then Nik is rescued from drowning by a girl from the waves who looks just like Anna; a girl who needs Evie’s help to win Nik’s love before it’s too late.
Ultimately I liked Sea Witch, but for the sake of ending on a high note I’m going to get what I wasn’t so keen on out of the way first.
Considering it was marketed as a villain origin story and considering its setting, I thought Sea Witch would be a lot darker than it ultimately was. The history of witch-hunting in Denmark is harrowing. In fact it’s Denmark’s fascination with witchcraft that influenced James VI of Scotland and I of England; when he visited the country to collect his bride, Anne of Denmark, he became obsessed with the idea of witches. He brought those ideas back to Scotland and many people died as a result.
There are glimpses of that in this book; Evie talks about how the festivals they celebrate burn effigies of what are essentially her ancestors on the bonfire, but it never went far enough for me. I never really felt like Evie was in danger because she only ever told me she was, but I never saw an example of what might happen to her if she were caught.
The blurb also mentions that Evie is an outcast but, again, I didn’t completely feel that. There are moments when she’s made to feel unwelcome, but we see so little of the people of Evie’s own social class that I never got a sense of how they felt about her. Being of a lower class it’s understandable that the upper classes who associate with the royal family feel as though she’s rising above her station, but so much more could have been done with this.
Evie spends the majority of her time with people from the upper classes and it’s a pet peeve of mine in witch stories. They always seem to take place at court when the majority of people accused of witchcraft were commoners, and I just didn’t need yet another book about royals, y’know? Obviously there is a prince in the original story, but if you’re going to retell it anyway why not include a boy who isn’t royalty for a change?
In fact Sea Witch felt like it could never decide if it wanted to be historical fiction or fantasy. Can it be both? Of course! But if you’re going to write historical fiction with hints of fantasy, I need to believe this book is set in the time and place you’re telling me it’s set in and I never quite felt that. Characters batted around phrases like ‘No worries’ and ‘when we were kids’ which I found really jarring. I am a history nerd, though, so I can completely understand that people who aren’t as into it as I am probably wouldn’t find that a problem.
All that aside, I did like this book! I loved Henning’s writing style; this was such a quick read, and the things she did include about Danish culture and folklore were interesting and helped me feel grounded in the setting she created.
Evie is a really sweet protagonist, too, and I liked her relationship with Nik. She could be a little naive from time to time but her naivety comes from a place of honesty, not stupidity, so any mistakes she made or the people she trusted when we know she shouldn’t have made sense.
Most of all, though, I liked the narrative choices Henning made. Is the plot a huge surprise? Not really, but it’s done well enough that it doesn’t matter if you can guess what’s coming. Personally I loved the ending; it’s rather bittersweet, but I appreciate the brave choices Henning made when, this being a retelling, she easily could have wrapped everything up in a happy, neat little bow.
I don’t think I’ll be reading the recently released sequel, I’m happy for this book to remain a standalone, but I’m definitely interested in reading more from Sarah Henning in future!