Every year, May is celebrated as AAPI Month in honor of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders who have contributed to the world. With popular reading platforms like Goodreads publishing lists of AAPI authors, the month has been a lovely whirlwind of new #ownvoices books topping my to-be-read list. Through it all, the one that has completely taken my breath away is a Korean-coded fantasy debut to the beat of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
The gorgeous cover of Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea depicts Mina, a young girl whose role has never yet been the protagonist. The loveliest girl in her village is Shim Cheong, but Cheong’s beauty is as much of a blessing as it is a curse—every year, a girl bride is sacrificed to the Sea God in hopes of satiating the deadly storms that sweep the land. Legend says that only the Sea God’s true bride will calm the floods forever.
Beautiful Cheong is set to be the annual sacrifice, but there is one problem: she loves Mina’s brother. To save her brother’s beloved, Mina jumps into the sea as a sacrifice instead, becoming the reckless heroine of her own story. In the watery depths, she enters the Spirit Realm, where spirits and creatures and gods abound.
But nothing is as it seems. As Mina tries to figure out why the Sea God is causing so many storms in the human world, her soul is stolen. From there, Mina must venture through a world of magic and lost stories and vengeful gods to seek answers about the Sea God, lest she become a spirit forever.
This book painted one of the lushest, most breathtaking settings I have ever had the pleasure to immerse myself in. Axie Oh brought the fascinating world of the Spirit Realm to life with such a detailed hand that I could feel the flurry of spirits, smell vendors’ candies and desserts, see the gilded palaces and gardens. I loved the Korean culture incorporated into the book, from the twist on the tale of Shim Cheong to the Red String of Fate. There was something about the aesthetic of the book that felt wholly comforting.
Perhaps what I adored most were the themes. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Mina; she seemed like yet another perfect Mary Sue heroine, the clean-cut selfless kind of girl about as real as a unicorn. As the book progressed, though, I began to see her flaws: her fear, her doubt, but her unwavering filial piety triumphing nevertheless. Mina stayed strong because of and for her family, which I deeply admired; it was steeped in the book’s Asian roots and ideologies, untarnished by romance or ulterior motives. Flashbacks to her grandmother's wonder and storytelling ability were wonderfully written and executed. Even when Mina was struggling, she sought to comfort others and wove stories like her grandmother's that were more magical than anything in the Spirit Realm. Mina was wise beyond her years and wielded her vulnerabilities like knives, which is the bravest thing of all.
That said, there was romance in the book. Initially, I lamented the lack of chemistry between the main couple. After reading, however, I’ve come to view it as more of a meeting of souls than physical touch or grand acts. I think the two love interests’ personalities truly slotted together, their individual internal beauty translating into immense care for each other. There is a love triangle, but in its loosest definition—Oh explored romance in such an unconventional yet wholesome way.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea featured the neglect of gods and the trenches of darkness between broken souls, but it also displayed the power that comes from weakness and how mere words can change the course of the world. It has earned its place as one of my comfort books and favorite books of all time. Oh has broken into the world of young adult fantasy with impeccable talent. I wish I had just one more page to spend with Mina and her friends and family, but in my heart, I know they ended up in exactly the right place.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh. Feiwel & Friends, 2022. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!