Based on the Korean Folktale “The Tale of Shim Cheong,” Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea takes readers into the spirit realm beyond the sea floor, a place full of immortal beasts, cheerful spirits, and brooding gods.
The story starts with a splash
16 year old Mina lives in a village that is constantly ravaged by storms and floods, so her people have created the practice of throwing an 18 year old girl into the sea every year to serve as the sea god’s bride in order to stave off the sea god’s wrath.
This year, the lover of Mina’s brother has been chosen.
Determined to protect the heart of her brother and keep him from losing himself to the sea, Mina dives in to the ocean herself to take her place.
However, when Mina sacrifices herself, she has no desire to be the bride of a god. Instead, she brings a dagger to end him with her own hands. But upon arrival to the spirit realm, she discovers the sea god is in a deep enchanted sleep, causing the storms in the both the human world and the spirit realm.
Through the help of a brooding young god named Shin, a cast of demons, beasts, and spirits, Mina traverses the spirit realm trying to find a way to break the sea god’s curse, stop the ravaging storms, and return herself home before she becomes a spirit herself.
Korean Spirited Away? Not quite
One of the major draws of me selecting this story was its comparison to Studio Ghibli’s incredible film Spirited Away. The high stakes and emotional character growth, as well as the tender, soft moments has immortalized Spirited Away as a piece of cinematic art. And I will say, that comparing this story to such a masterpiece was probably a slight disservice to the story.
There are similarities between the two to be sure. Both take place in the spirit realm. There are weird creatures, dragons, demons, monsters, and spirits that look like humans. Our male protagonist also suffers from memory loss like Haku. However, that’s about where the major similarities end. The emotional depth of the characters is fairly surface and the plot moves at such a rapid pace (which I’m sure is because the book is alarmingly short for a fantasy), that there are no quiet moments to let the characters breath and grow. So if you came to this story looking for Spirited Away, you will be disappointed.
A whimsical Korean folktale retelling? Absolutely
However, if you are looking for a light, Korean folktale retelling, full of spirits, monsters, and gods, then this book is absolutely for you, and it does this task well.
As I am not familiar with the original “Tale of Shim Cheong,” I cannot attest to what has or hasn’t been changed, but what I do know is that a story of sacrificing yourself for another is timeless. This book has all the elements to be an absolute powerhouse of a story. A young woman will to do whatever it takes to protect her loved ones. A brooding god with a mysterious past and all the angst. A curse that needs to broken. A realm full of different houses of gods, all unique and different.
Too fast and too furious to fully enjoy
Thus, it is such a shame that the story had to be so rushed. The first act is absolutely engaging as readers are thrown into Mina’s world and her decision to throw herself into the sea. Shin’s introduction is also a delight, as sparks fly between the two in the best kind of enemies to lovers way.
However, the story doesn’t allow the story to coast and get its footing, to develop the world, the stakes, and characters properly before we get thrown into the second act. The enemies to lovers is almost immediately changed to attraction without little build up to the switch. Mina is also far less terrified about waking up in the spirit realm than most people would be.
Not to mention, the issue of her soul being stolen from her body and losing her voice is almost immediately resolved. This is such a shame because it was fascinating to watch her try to navigate a totally new situation without a voice, when one of her strongest attributes is to speak her mind. This would have been such a fantastic way to grow Mina’s character, but instead it gets solved almost instantly, and Shin doesn’t even care that she gets it back right in front of him (Which then why did he do it in the first place?).
But fated love (kinda) saves the day
Yet as I gripe and moan, I still read on. And to my delight, Axie Oh delivers one of my favorite tropes: fated lovers. As cliche as it is, when two lovers are meant to be and fate has deemed it so, I’m all in. So, I continued to read the story that whizzed by like a cheetah on a treadmill and whenever moments centered on that fated love, I was invested. I wanted more. But alas they were brief, and ran over by the lightening fast plot.
A story that wanted to be all the things
And I think that’s the core issue with this story. This story wanted to be everything, part epic fantasy with different houses of the gods at war with each other, part classic fairytale with a curse needing to be broken, and part epic romance with fated lovers. With all these elements, the story didn’t have time to any one of them to their full potential. This story could have used at least a hundred more pages, then my friends, we would have probably the best YA fantasy of the year.
But, if you have the time and synopsis of this story sounds remotely interesting to you, give it a shot! With it being so short, it is a quick read and a great way to escape for an afternoon.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh was released on February 22nd, 2022.