Alright, so Iron Widow was not my jam (to my disappointment). I was really hoping that the next of my library audiobook holds would turn things around, and Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea came to me next. And oh, this one is my jam. Or at any rate, it hits a lot of sweet spots for me and I enjoyed it tremendously. (Not burying the lede this time, either, obviously.)
The novel is not exactly a retelling of the Korean folktale “Shim Cheong” (apparently also known as “The Blind Man’s Daughter”) so much as a “what-if” that riffs on the premise of that story. In the folktale, Shim Cheong is the beautiful, kindhearted daughter of a blind man who sells herself as a sacrifice to the sea god so that her father can regain his sight. But the sea god rescues her, sends her back up to the world, an emperor falls in love with her, and she is reunited with her father, who does regain his sight. But the protagonist of this story is not Shim Cheong, but Mina, the younger sister of Joon who is in love with Shim Cheong, and so Mina throws herself into the sea to save Shim Cheong and her brother’s happiness. In this world, a girl is sacrificed every year to the sea god to placate the storms that batter the nation; Mina makes herself the new bride of the sea god. But once she gets down there into the land of spirits, nothing goes as she planned: the sea god is apparently willfully slumbering and ignoring both his brides and his obligations, and a mysterious man named Shin, with his companions Namgi and Kirin, sever Mina’s red ribbon of fate that ties her to the sea god, and then also take her soul. She’s got a month to kick around in this spirit world before she can collect her soul back (at which point she will be a spirit, too). Obviously this is routine for them. But it isn’t for Mina, and the first people she meets (a girl named Mask who is, yes, wearing a mask, and a young boy named Dai who is always carrying around an infant girl) keep popping up to help her as she first gets her soul back (well head of schedule) and then gets involved in the local spiritual politics in her quest to un-curse the sea god and save her people. Oh, and obviously that brooding and mysterious Lord Shin is going to be very important to Mina.
This has been described as a feminist retelling, and it is: Mina has agency and pluck, and the tradition of sacrificing girls to the sea god comes in for criticism. But also this is a story about both one’s actual and chosen families (both are powerful forces for potential good here), as well a richly-realized world. Certain plot beats, like the romance, are familiar YA territory. But Oh’s use of Korean folklore and culture create a marvelous setting in which this all unfolds, and one that offers intriguing questions, like: what are the obligations of the gods to creatures so petty and destructive as humankind? if you can influence your fate, what should you try to bring about?
I was also just in a mental space where I was ready for a book in which the central characters are fundamentally decent and trying hard to do what’s right. This is a novel that focuses heavily on relationships, and not just on the romance: Mina’s budding friendships with Namgi, Kirin, Mask, and Dai are also deeply meaningful parts of the story. Mina herself is a fairly ordinary girl: pretty but not beautiful; a good storyteller but otherwise not a paragon of any skill; also, blessedly, devoid of meaningless flaws like being clumsy. Her biggest issue is that, at sixteen, she is naive, though not willfully so: she’s a quick study, but blunders like any young foreigner might, even if she hadn’t landed herself in the middle of otherworldly politics beyond her immediate understanding. The problem is that here, her blunders are more costly than they would be in the more knowable and less supernatural realm of her village, where she was surrounded by family who loved her and knew her well. The familial relationships here are also nicely sketched; Mina is orphaned, but has been raised by kind grandparents and has two older brothers and a sister-in-law with whom she is genuinely close. There’s a lot of warmth to go around–and they’re even more important than they seem at first glance. I also appreciate that this was a story that put a very high value on the many forms of love: romantic, filial, friendship, all of them profoundly powerful, and all necessary in tandem to drive the story to its ultimate conclusion.
This is just a well-crafted and imaginative story in a setting that was a pleasure to explore. It’s also a delight to read a genuine stand-alone novel, a story that’s engrossing and also fully self-contained. I really look forward to reading more from Oh, especially in this vein.
Stray notes: good audiobook narration from Rose Escoda, and that cover art! just beautiful.