10:30 am EDT, July 31, 2018

Poor unfortunate soul to formidable foe: ‘Sea Witch’ explores the origin of the ‘Little Mermaid’ villain

Have you ever wondered how the Sea Witch became the Little Mermaid’s most formidable foe? Then you’ll want to check out Sarah Henning’s new novel Sea Witch.

It’s no secret that I love retellings of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” The 1989 Disney adaptation is one of my favorite movies of all time, I once played Ariel in a theater production at my local park district (singing and all), and, nowadays, I just take the story in whatever form I can get it.

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So imagine my excitement when I came across Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch. It’s a retelling unlike any I’ve read before. Sea Witch doesn’t tell the story of the little mermaid but instead takes the reader back to the origins of the story’s mysterious and menacing sea witch. Before she was the fiercest woman in the sea, Evie was a girl with a dark secret who loved her two best friends. When one of them dies and the other has to fulfill his royal duties, Evie is left to find her own way in a world that hates her. That is, until a mysterious girl with her own fair share of secrets and the face of a dead girl shows up and changes everything.

Doesn’t sound like a “Little Mermaid” retelling, does it?

I think that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about Sea Witch, honestly. In this novel, there were no tongue-in-cheek references or easily recognizable characters lurking in the background or randomly passing through a scene. Aside from Evie (who, and this isn’t a spoiler, becomes the Sea Witch by the end of the novel), there’s only one other character that this novel shares with the classic fairy tale. However, we never actually see them. We only read about others’ interactions with them.

By setting Sea Witch outside of the familiar in terms of tropes and characters, Sarah Henning instead opens up the story to allow us to see the world that the classic fairy tale comes from. With all the drama and, in the Disney adaptation’s case, all of the music, the setting of “The Little Mermaid” gets lost. But by stripping all of those familiar elements away, the setting becomes its own character and pushes us to see that it too has a hand in the classic story.

A pretty major one, actually.

And, because it’s such a big character, Sarah Henning writes the most beautifully lush and detailed descriptions of the setting. In fact, I could taste the salt from the sea and feel a sea breeze through my hair while I devoured this novel. It’s quite a magical experience.

Speaking of magic, it’s definitely the other major non-corporeal player in this story. It’s a constant undercurrent through every scene and interaction, whether it’s called upon or not. Having magic around from the very beginning makes Evie’s transformation into the Sea Witch more believable and seamless. After all, if she wasn’t able to control magic, her becoming the most feared entity in the sea later down the line would be a little questionable.

My only complaint here is that there was sometimes a bit too much magic. The setting and the characters were magical enough without needing to constantly focus on the “science” of magic. Especially towards the end where I just wanted to spend more time with characters I knew I’d never see again (because they’re not a part of the “Little Mermaid” canon). While it’s fascinating to see how Evie uses and struggles with magic, it takes attention away from who she is as a person in scenes where that matters most.

Instead of being complete fantasy, Sea Witch feels really historical in nature. It draws heavily on Danish culture and history, shining a light on traditional customs, foods, and even perceptions of the larger world. Because the Danish are so reliant on their fishing and whaling, they view the sea as a living entity capable of making its own decisions. By grounding Sea Witch in a time in history and giving background on how the Danish lived their lives in the past, Henning gives us context for why beloved “Little Mermaid” characters do what they do (like having all of their major gatherings on boats) and really enriches the reader’s view of the story we all know and love.

But enough about the setting and atmosphere. Let’s get to the part I know you’re all curious about: The characters.

Sea Witch is Wicked-esque in that it not only weaves a really interesting origin story for a well-known villain but actually argues that she’s not evil after all. Evie is just sorely misunderstood. She cares deeply for the ones she loves and will stop at nothing to protect them. Does that mean that she makes some misguided decisions sometimes? Sure. Does it also mean that she can be easily tricked or led astray? Sadly, yes. But it’s her fallibility and willingness to own up to her mistakes that makes her a compelling character.

And although those traits aren’t ones we’d normally associate with the Sea Witch character we’ve all come to know (and fear) over the years, Evie’s path to becoming who she’s meant to be is really organic and true to her character. It’s a puzzle in that the book constantly leaves us wondering whether she’ll go full evil and vindictive or if her reputation of power will mask her true nature.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning

Evie’s friend Annemette is a different story. She’s a fascinating character because she’s a complete mystery and keeps her secrets incredibly close to her chest. She may look like Evie’s childhood friend Anna, but she’s quieter and not nearly as bubbly. Oh, but also, she’s a mermaid on a mission to win the heart of the prince and become human permanently. (Sound familiar?)

Annemette and Evie’s relationship in the novel is one to keep a close eye on. While neither character is truly unlikeable, I didn’t find either of them entirely likeable or root-worthy either and I think a lot of that has to do with their relationship with each other. It’s almost impossible to tell what they truly think of and value in each other because you can tell that they’re both using the other for their own gain.

But the young men in Sea Witch? Well, they’re a completely different story. Evie’s best friend Nik is, by far, the best character in the novel. He’s strong, yet vulnerable. Noble yet incredibly sweet. His character, more than any other, leaps off the page, and it’s impossible not to invest in him as he’s navigating his ascension to the throne, social class tensions, and love. If you’re a fan of Prince Eric from Disney’s version of the tale, know that Nik here is 1000% more lovely.

If anything, it’s Nik that brings out the best in Evie’s character. As best friends, they’re constantly head-checking and looking out for each other. His interactions with Evie bring out her sweetness and make her relax while she gives him well-needed boosts of confidence. If I were to personally encounter a sea witch, I’d ask her for more scenes with and interactions between these two.

Nik’s cousin Iker also deserves mention here as he was probably my second favorite character. He possesses all of the same qualities as Nik but in contrasting levels. While Nik’s default is to be sweet and caring, Iker’s is to be confident and roguish. It takes a little bit of digging and one-on-one time with Iker to see his softer, more sensitive side. But when we get there, he’s almost just as swoon-worthy as Nik.

Iker is also very much a realist and a protector of his cousin. He values his (relatively) carefree life while also recognizing the boundaries of his station. Though he seems like a sort of side character at first (as he’s not a part of the original friendship threesome), Iker becomes central to the story in a way that is really intriguing and natural. Oh, and the intimate scenes between him and Evie are pretty great too.

One other aspect of Sea Witch that I’d like to point out is the way in which the story is told. Although it’s pretty slow-moving and really only takes place over the matter of a week or so, the inclusion of chapters that feature alternate points of view keeps everything moving. Evie is the novel’s main narrator and all present day chapters are told by her, but, after every few chapters, we’re taken back to the day her best friend Anna drowned and given a slice of that story from Nik, Iker, and even Anna herself. These POV chapters not only further the story and add context to the present day goings-on, but also give us a better sense of who the main characters are and what motivates them. I honestly would’ve loved more of these POV chapters because I found them to be the most intriguing!

Sea Witch is a prequel/retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale and not necessarily of one of Walt Disney’s most beloved films. But what Sea Witch lacks in pure whimsy and singing sea creatures, it more than makes up for with atmosphere and layered relationships. If you’re a fan of character-driven stories, flawed protagonists, or swoon-worthy Danish men, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this novel. And, well, if you’re a fan of “The Little Mermaid” in any shape or form and you haven’t already gotten yourself a copy of this novel, do it now.

You’ll never see the Sea Witch in the same way ever again.

‘Sea Witch’ by Sarah Henning is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!


Related — To Kill a Kingdom book review: Swashbuckling pirates, fierce sirens, and magic, oh my!

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