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Book: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” by Axie Oh
Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, March 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: 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…
Review: You all know what I’m going to say at this point. Yes. Again. The beautiful cover has sucked me in! But I’ve also really enjoyed many of the Asian fairytales I’ve read, be they coming from Chinese, Japanese, or other Eastern cultures. This one is Korean, and I was excited to see what Axie Oh had to offer!
Mina is not a chosen bride, one of the young women chosen each year to be sacrificed to the sea in the hope that their sacrifice will calm the Sea God who torments the land with violent storms each year. No, Mina is not this girl. But her brother’s true love is, and in a desperate attempt to save her brother from pain, Mina throws herself into the sea in place of the true bride. Now, wandering in the Spirit Realm, Mina is determined to solve the mystery surrounding the reserved and closed-in Sea God. She is aided by a young man, Shin, who has spent the last century protecting the Sea God from the other ambitious gods who seek to dethrone him during this time of turmoil. Can Mina unwind this puzzle before her soul is lost forever?
This book has been praised with many comparisons to “Spirited Away.” And while I only enjoyed that movie so much, I know that fanatic fans will take this comparison as a true boon for this book. And I do see the comparisons. Here, too, we have a young woman thrust into a mysterious and dangerous land of spirits where forces are moving beyond her control. The world-building in this book was so good. The Spirit Realm felt vibrant and alive (even though it was filled with the spirits of the dead and gods). You could feel the life teaming in the busy market places, the dangerous river of souls, and the various pavilions of gods. And with each god comes a new challenge for Mina, a young woman who is way out of her depth. I loved the magical elements that we explored alongside of her, the various political maneuverings of the gods, the fantastical elements that flew the air and water, and the color spirts who guided her along her way.
The writing was also excellent. The story simply flows, there’s no other way to say it. Things are constantly happening, but the pace never felt frenetic or frantic. Instead, it was perfectly pitched to slow down and land the emotional hits that come with Mina’s interactions with the Sea God and other gods (the goddess of women and children was a particularly crushing moment). But there was also tons of action, with battles between gods vying for the Sea God’s throne and the dangers of an ever-rising river of the dead.
Mina was a fantastic guide through all of this. She starts off as strong as you can get, sacrificing herself to spare her brother the pain of losing his love. And once she discovers the confusion and mysteries that surround the Sea God, she quickly determines to do her best to still end his curse, even if she knows that she is not the true bride. Her persistence, faith, and hope in the face of despair made her incredibly compelling. There were many moments where you could see the temptation to simply give up and take the good things that she could find for herself in this land. But that is not the way of a girl who has already sacrificed her own life for others. Instead, she pushes through adversity all the way to the end, even past the point where others would caution her to accept the state of things.
I also really liked the relationship that was built up between Mina and Shin. It’s a slow-build romance, and their relationship never felt rushed. Part of this is due to the wise decision not to rely on the romantic relationship to carry the entire story. Instead, Mina’s connection to the Sea God and three special spirits who help her on her way (as well as two of Shin’s friends) all help to flesh out the cast into a satisfying collection of various relationships and emotional draws.
I can’t say enough good things about this book! This review is already way longer than usually I write, and that’s because every time I finish a paragraph I think of another aspect of the story that I want to praise! Fantasy fans should definitely give this one a shop! Especially if you’re a fan of Asian fairytales like “Spirited Away.”
Rating 9: Lush, mystical, and full of life in all of its beauties and sorrows.
“The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: Korean Fantasy Books and Books that inspired or are similar to Miyazaki films.