I have fond memories of watching the Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid as a child, and so I was over the moon when I saw that Sea Witch, Sarah Henning’s retelling of this classic tale, was coming out at the end of July. It was billed as dark young adult fantasy with a bit of a love triangle, and I was hoping for something really great. Unfortunately, what I actually got was a rather confusing story with cookie cutter characters and a plot I could barely follow.
Evie, Nick, and Anna are childhood friends who live in a sleepy little fishing village somewhere in Denmark. Nick is a prince, Evie is the daughter of a fisherman, and Anna is the victim of a drowning accident. I know it sounds odd that one of the main characters is already deceased at the start of the novel; I struggled to make sense of it too, but things get a whole lot weirder from here.
When Nick and Evie are around sixteen, Nick is betrothed to the princess of a neighboring country, and his family throws a huge party to celebrate his upcoming nuptials. All the villagers attend, and a good time seems to be had by all. Evie has a different interpretation of things though. For one thing, thoughts of Anna are never far from her mind. Life doesn’t seem quite worth living without her to share it with, and Evie wonders how Nick’s betrothal and subsequent marriage will further change the dynamics of their very unlikely friendship. The fact that she has feelings for Nick is something she tries to ignore since it’s highly unlikely there could ever be anything between them, but she can’t bear the thought of being pushed toward the outer fringes of his life. To make matters a whole lot worse, Evie is generally disapproved of by the villagers. They think she’s a witch, and they’d like to see her leave, but her friendship with Nick offers her a bit of protection from their ire. Still, she can’t quite relax and enjoy the party.
When Nick almost drowns, Evie starts to dive in to save him, but someone else gets there first – and his savior just so happens to be a young woman who is the spitting image of the deceased Anna. She calls herself Annemette, but Evie is convinced that Anna has come back from the dead to save Nick’s life. She’s stunned, but understandably overjoyed to see her friend again; but as the story progresses, it becomes painfully obvious that something is not right about Annemette.
Time passes, and things grow increasingly strange. I can’t say more without spoiling things, but it’s important for potential readers to know that this book is incredibly creepy, with a feeling of impending doom that builds slowly throughout. I normally like books that creep me out, but this creepiness was frustrating since I never felt like I had a clear idea where the danger was coming from or how it could be stopped. There’s certainly nothing wrong with an author keeping readers in suspense, but there’s a fine line between being kept in the dark in a good way and feeling like you’re just not able to fully grasp the plot. Unfortunately, Sea Witch falls on the wrong side of that line.
I’m usually a fan of books with unlikeable heroines, but Evie never felt real to me. Her character lacks the depth and substance necessary to bring her to life. We know she’s rumored to be a witch, and that she cares deeply for her friends, but those seem to be her only defining characteristics. We never get a clear idea of what makes her tick, and I need that kind of knowledge if I’m going to believe in a character.
The plot moves at a painfully slow pace. There are countless descriptions of the village, the ocean, and the weather, which go far beyond what was necessary to set the scene. Instead, I got bogged down in all the flowery language. There are long stretches when nothing of substance happens, and I was tempted to skip over quite a bit of it. In fact, if I hadn’t promised to write a review of the book, I doubt I would have finished it at all.
I do have to give Ms. Henning props for the historical detail she includes here. The story is set in the nineteenth century, and it’s obvious she did quite a bit of research into what life would have been like in Denmark during that time. I was pleased with the way she chose to blend fact and fantasy to create her world. If her plot had been stronger and her characters had more depth, this could have been a book I loved.
There are a lot of well-written fairy-tale retellings out there, but I cannot include Sea Witch in their number. It’s a story with a lot of unrealized potential, and I came away from it with a feeling of profound disappointment.