I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, however I do acknowledge that I am behind schedule and the book has already been released.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a feminist retelling of the Korean myth of Shim Cheong, a tale that I knew nothing about before picking up this book but now I am in awe of. The book opens with Mina – our protagonist – volunteering (or maybe sacrificing) herself as the Sea God’s bride to spare her brother and the girl he loves. She is swept away to the Spirit Realm, setting out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the storms that leave entire villages in despair once and for all. However, she doesn’t have much time: a human cannot survive for long in the Spirit Realm, and there are many people who will do anything to stop the Sea God from waking.
Chloe Gong described this book as ‘a tale brimming with love’ and I do think that that’s the most accurate description. It’s a story about family and friendship and loyalty from the start: the opening scene is Mina sacrificing herself to save her brother and the girl he loves. There are a lot of scenes that are flashbacks to conversations between Mina and her grandmother, and it was a lovely way to incorporate this relationship into the plot and it didn’t feel distracting from the main storyline for a moment.
The world is beautiful. It’s creative and lively and gorgeously written in a way that makes it feel like it was written by a fantasy writer with decades of experience but still accessible to readers who are new to the genre. It’s been a while since I felt so engrossed by a new world and I was lost in the pages and couldn’t stop thinking about it when I put the book down.
I am very fond of the side characters, too. I have somehow never seen Spirited Away so I did not manage to catch on to some of the twists regarding the characters themselves that other readers were already familiar with. We meet a lot of characters very quickly at the beginning of the book, but it’s not overwhelming and all of them feel unique and distinguishable and relevant to the story.
I originally rated this book as the full five stars but, after having some time to dwell on it, I lowered my rating to four stars for three reasons. The first reason is the pacing. The middle of the book felt very rushed which I almost forgave as Mina’s time in the spirit realm is too short, but then the ending dragged out longer than I could force myself to keep interested. The second reason is the ending and the events leading up to it: a lot of the issues throughout Mina’s journey were solved very quickly and easily, and the entire book builds up to a finale that was also so easy but in a way that left me confused and unsatisfied. The third reason is Mina herself. She’s a good character and I enjoyed her perspective, but I feel like I know nothing about her other than the fact that she wants to save her family and her village and to overall do the right thing. I wish she had a little more depth and qualities that weren’t patience and bravery and virtues.
Overall, this was a beautiful read with some fun side characters, a vibrant world, and a truly wonderful introduction (for me) to Korean folklore.
Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)