Sea Witch is the story of the legendary antagonist of The Little Mermaid. How it exactly is that way you’ll find out eventually. The protagonist is named Evie. Taking place in 1863 but disguising many gimmicks in order to make it feel like it could’ve happened today or a thousand years ago, we’re introduced to Evie at Havnestad, Denmark. This is a place that treats the sea as their lord, who takes as much as it gives and decides the flow of fate. We learned that four years ago, when Evie was twelve, her sister Anna drowned when the tide pulled her in and even a bit of magic she learned from her mother (which was and still is as outlawed as murder) couldn’t stop it. But Evie managed to pull her in, and Evie and her mom both knew her brain was still functioning, but there’d be minutes before a lack of oxygen flowing through it would permanently damage it. But it ended with Anna still dead and their mother surrendered to Davy Jones. Four years later, Evie still grieves for the other half of her family, and her dad goes on constant fishing trips, often leaving her with her Tante Hemsa, who still teaches a bit of magic once in a while to her. Nik, a long-time friend of Evie and Anna’s, who’s the prince of the land, is bound to marry someone, and Nik’s cousin Iker, a prankster and also a close friend from out of town is back. Evie doesn’t care about any arranged marriages, because she knows with her notoriety of people believing she was responsible for her sister’s death, that she’d never be allowed to marry one of them. Then one night, Nik ends up swept away by the tide off of a party boat, and he’s rescued...by someone with a tailfin and familiar blonde hair. Really, really familiar blonde hair.
The first 100 pages were refreshing. I got to read about the absolute devastation of a girl Primrose Everdeen’s age dying one of the worst deaths known to man, all because they wanted to have fun. We also later on read about Nik going missing during a separate swim and Evie seeing a hand above water in the storm, and the race against time to get to him. Whenever the book was out on the sea, or doing its flashbacks, it was at its best. During a celebration, Nik is forced to endure eating all sorts of foods and promising the villagers it is the best the world has to offer, even cheeses old or stinky. Nik soon begs Evie to save him with a bloated and probably disgusted stomach, and I felt for him tremendously. Did I also mention Nik’s just a great guy and it’s fun to read about him?
Then the second act came in, and my enjoyment of the book faded the more it went. And nothing was necessarily very bad about it; it had a timer, a conflict of how best to win love and save a life, and...well, actually, when it came down to it, that was it. A lot of the second half was just scheming for how to con Nik into falling in love. You might be thinking, “Well, the source material of The Little Mermaid told that same story which Henning is basing it on.” Which is true. But Henning had the right to be flexible, and come up with some schemes that could generate more excitement, like sneaking something into Nik’s pouch or trick him into thinking everyone’s getting sick from something that Annemette figures out the cure to (I’m just spitballing here). That would’ve been more fun than hearing about a royal ball and then spending a chapter selecting magically-sewn dresses.
Thankfully, when it seems the book is going to drag for the final 120 pages, we get more flashbacks that manage to keep up their somber attitudes. The flashbacks ruin a big discovery, making it completely a surprise to the characters but not to us, but these flashbacks arrive the countdown before the climax to happen earlier, making it just a little more intriguing than it would’ve otherwise been.
The ending was a bit of a head-scratcher, but it was definitely abnormal. Like, whoa! I felt there were many ways it didn’t have to go that way, but it did, and I’m thinking about it quite a ton, especially an epilogue that lays out what the book was really aiming for and made me think about people who may feel trapped in their lives, whether given a hefty incarceration sentence, or feeling pigeonholed with their job. It makes you think about all sorts of human lives and how they’ve come to be what they are. Will all this make me pick up the brand-new sequel, Sea Witch Rising? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t expect it to be best-of-the-year material either.
Compared to the other recent fairy-tale spike-ups, like The Lunar Chronicles, The Shadow Queen and Hunted, Sea Witch is notably atmospheric. Compared to them, it’s also notably slow.