The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea
Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian.
Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall writes with lyrical, moving prose that immerses the reader right into the heart of the book. The chapters alternate following Flora and Evelyn with occasional chapters for secondary characters like Rake. Each character has a powerful story. Flora/Florian doesn't relish life as a pirate. She's lonely and doesn't like the knife's edge tension on the ship. But she's also conflicted because her brother is also on the crew, and though he drinks away their savings, she loves him. She's extremely reluctant to like Evelyn, someone who comes from a world of privilege. On Evelyn's end, she never thought she would be teaching a pirate to read and to then share stories with him, finding joy on a journey where each day brings her closer to a fate she never wanted. I love how they slowly open up to each other and continue to choose each other again and again, even when all hope seems lost.
As hard as it is to pick one favorite element of THE MERMAID, THE WITCH, AND THE SEA, I think it's the lore. The sea is a living deity on her own, and the mermaids are her daughters who hold memories for her. Each time pirates capture mermaids (to use for their mermaid's blood, an intoxicating drink), she loses memories. The Pirate Supreme is her human charge whose mission in life is to stop such pirates and protect the mermaids. Meanwhile, on land, you have witches who are largely thought to be extinct due to the Emperor's colonizing. I could read books upon books set in this world, and I would never get tired of learning more about this intricate place.
If you're looking for a beautifully written, queer, romantic, powerful story to lose yourself in, THE MERMAID, THE WITCH, AND THE SEA is the perfect recommendation.