I spend a fair amount of time on #BookTwitter. It’s really heartening to see how many teens and young adults are as excited about books as older adults. However, I noticed a tweet the other day which gave me pause.
It highlighted the seemingly large number of teens, and even pre-teens, who are lured into reading what the tweeter called “porn” by the peer pressure of today, social media, namely BookTok (book influencers on TikTok).
Despite loving YA fiction I’m not really up to speed with the kids’ hottest flavours of today, so I don’t have enough knowledge to know how unsuitable this material actually is for this young crowd who typically type in all lower-case online.
But the tweet did get me thinking: is it more harmful for 11+-year-olds to read fictional sex scenes or watch real ones that are oh-so-accessible online? And is today’s accessibility of sexual imagery to young people creating a new, more overt trend in the literature marketed toward them?
Having two young daughters myself, that would be a sad outlook. There is so much more in the world, and out of it, to explore in books than unrealistic sex.
And that is why I was delighted to read an ARC of The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh.
For a hundred years, fierce storms, floods and wars have devastated the land and its people. Each year, the villagers sacrifice a young woman, throwing her into the sea as an offering of a bride to the Sea God, hoping she will appease him enough that the devastation on land ends.
Sixteen-year-old Mina follows the boat sailing the next bride, Shim Cheong, out to her fate, along with her older brother, Joon, for whom the chosen bride is his beloved. Knowing that he will be killed if he is seen with the bride, Mina offers herself in Shim Cheong’s place.
She is cast into the Spirit Realm beneath the sea, full of spirits and gods, where she races against time, and her heart, to solve the mystery of the Sea God’s wrath and restore peace to her people once and for all.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a retelling based on a classic Korean novel: 심청전 (The Tale of Shim Cheong), which itself was adapted from the pansori 심청가 (Shimcheongga), a stage-performed musical storytelling.
The original versions focus on Shim Cheong, who cares for her blind father. She throws herself into the sea in the hope that her sacrifice will cure her father’s blindness.
I saw multiple other reviews stating that The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea also took inspiration from the Japanese Spirited Away. I am fairly new to Studio Ghibli (thanks for putting me onto the game, Netflix).
I have seen Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro numerous times (my girls love them a lot!) but have been doing other things on the times they watched Spirited Away. So in the interest of giving as rich a review as I could, naturally, I watched it.
In Spirited Away, ten-year-old Chihiro finds herself thrust into the Spirit World while moving house with her parents. She makes a deal to work at the spirit bathhouse in order to free her parents, who were turned into pigs.
Chihiro is befriended by the mysterious Haku, a boy who tells Chirhiro he has known her for many years and who we later discover can morph into a dragon.
At the end of the movie, Chihiro remembers that it was Haku in dragon-form who rescued her when she once fell into a river. Haku then remembers that his true purpose was to serve as the spirit of Kohaku river.
I haven’t seen The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea marketed as inspired by Spirited Away but I have seen Axie Oh share reviews on Instagram that say so, so I think it is safe to say that she is not at all affronted by the comparison.
I would say there are similar elements but The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea stands up strongly on its own without needing its readers to wish for Spirited Away fanfiction.
The two share kindred spirits in their marketplaces, employment economies, male characters who can morph into mythical creatures and female protagonists risking themselves to save their loved ones. After that, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is its own.
Girl is a pacey story balanced beautifully with delicate narration. It features a gently-simmering love story that featured scenes of such precious, intense intimacy but which were almost always non-contact, and certainly always non-sexual.
Going back to my opening remarks, I’m absolutely not a prude. But I think it’s really important for teens and young adults to be able to explore romance and relationships through fiction without exposure to unrealistic sexualism that the adults the scenes were probably intended for are experienced enough to know are for dramatic effect.
I also love folk and fairytale retellings and am currently learning Korean (아미, 안녕하세요! ^o^. Reading characters named Joon and Namgi made my Army ears prick right up!), so stepping into Mina’s spirit world and experiencing the colours, textures, clothing, decor, architecture and food felt extra magical to me.
I thoroughly appreciated how Axie Oh didn’t write Mina to be a typical YA heroine who is ‘beautiful but doesn’t know it (until a guy shows interest in her)’.
Throughout the book, Mina and numerous other characters remark upon her plain looks – no one looked upon her and immediately made it their life’s goal to pursue her at all costs.
But that doesn’t shrink her. It doesn’t stop her from battling to save what she holds dear. It doesn’t give her a shy tic, no mouth covering or hiding behind her hair.
It doesn’t make her silent, waiting for a boy gives her ego enough of a boost to speak (even when she actually physically loses her voice). And I think it’s only when you actually read female protagonists like this in YA that you realise how infrequently it’s done.
I also loved the personal strength which Mina draws from her matriarchal line throughout the story. Mina’s grandmother and great-great-grandmother have a crucial influence on the integrity she relies upon, particularly during pivotal scenes when she goes against what is asked of her.
Axie Oh writes with gracefulness, adding another layer of glorious whimsy to this fantastical tale. I especially enjoyed how colours were associated with different perceptions towards the characters and events, and how these perceptions transformed throughout the story, my favourite symbol of which being the Red String of Fate.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea explores what it means to keep faith in something you believe in when it seems to be actively working against you. But I think the bigger message to take away from Mina’s story is: never lose faith in yourself.
‘If I follow this path, it’ll eventually lead me to the beach. If I turn around, the path will take me back to the village. Which destiny belongs to me?’ (This gave me huge Moana vibes!)
‘She has skin forged from the purest of pearls. She has hair stitched from the deepest night. She has lips colored by the blood of men. Maybe this last detail is more bitterness than truth.’
‘I wondered what someone so beautiful could possibly wish for.’
‘I wonder if it happens in a day, for your fate to change. Or if it takes longer for your life to be stolen from you.’
‘Seawater falls off its dark blue scales, dropping like coins onto the boat’s deck.’
‘After all, not all storytellers are grandmothers, but all grandmothers are storytellers.’
‘At least I am more prepared than most, armed as I am with my knife and my grandmother’s stories.’
‘My name sounds small beside theirs, these girls who always seemed larger than life.’
‘There’s a sharp pain in my chest, but it’s not love. It’s darker, hotter, and infinitely stronger.’
“Are you a bride or are you a bird?”
“A magpie may dream it’s a crane, but never will it be one.”
‘I may be rash. Common, perhaps. But I am not weak.’
‘My grandmother always says to pay attention to stories, for there are often truths hidden within.’
‘Stories and myths are my blood and breath.’
“Humans tell myths to explain what they cannot understand.”
‘I realize, his eyes do more to hide his thoughts than his mask does to hide his face.’
“Your people suffer not because of any great will of the gods, but because of their own violent acts…They spill blood that pollutes the rivers and streams…Look upon your reflection to find your enemy.”
‘I’m not unfamiliar with death, but seeing it never gets easier.’
‘My grandmother said only the words I believe in are the ones that can hurt me.’
‘He was right, in the end, but while it gained him nothing to be right, it costs me everything to be wrong.’
“Sometimes you don’t find family in your own blood but elsewhere.”
‘Nothing extraordinary is ever done out of reason or logic, but because it’s the only way for your soul to breathe.’
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is perfect for readers who love:
- strong female leads
- diverse worlds and characters
- sophisticated YA
- folktale retellings
- mystical underworlds
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is released on 22nd February 2022. Here are some non-affiliated pre-order links:
- Pre-order a personalised and/or signed copy from The Writer’s Block
- Pre-order from Politics & Prose
- Pre-order from Waterstones
- Pre-order from Amazon
Axie Oh is active on Twitter, very active on Instagram and, according to her website she loves these same things I do: BTS, EXO, iKON, GOT7, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Harvest Moon and Ni no Kuni, so, clearly, she’s amazing.
Many thanks to Axie Oh, NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC.