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Books: Sea Witch and Sea Witch Rising

Sea Witch and Sea Witch Rising by Sarah Henning
Does magic create witches, or do witches create magic?

Caution: This may contain some spoilers.

What I Enjoyed Most About These Books:

1. The location in both of these books was Denmark, the birthplace and residence of Hans Christian Andersen (the original author of the fairytale "The Little Mermaid").

2. Each book contained lush descriptions of the Danish culture within the story, introducing readers to food, customs, and words without weighing down the plot.

3. In Sea Witch, Henning weaves a tale that nods at Disney's version of "The Little Mermaid" by crafting Evie's narrative from a human witch to the sea witch. In this book, the narrative switches between Evie and Anna, childhood friends, and also the past and the present. Anna becomes a mermaid through magical means, and she is bent on revenge. Her ultimate goal is to kill the prince that Evie loves and return to the sea as a powerful being created by the land and the sea. After discovering Anna's intent, Evie strives to use her limited human witch abilities to defeat her. In doing so, Evie transforms into a half-humanoid and half-octopus being that the sea has never known before. This novel is a twisty and reversed tale of Hans Christian Andersen's original little mermaid.

4. In Sea Witch Rising, Henning continues Evie's tale, but the dual narrative is now that of Runa, the little mermaid's twin sister. Runa learns of her sister Alia's sacrifice for the love of a human prince, who happens to be a descendant of the man Evie loved. Angry, Runa goes to the Sea Witch with her sisters to make a bargain for Alia's safety. While the location and time period are set in Denmark around WW1, the story unfolds much the same way as Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale with a few new twists on each plot point.

5. Both stories were cleverly mirrored, unwinding from the original "The Little Mermaid" tale in a way that hit all of the major points of the original tale and included many of the finer details as well. In the original tale of "The Little Mermaid", all of the below happen and are included in some form within the novels Sea Witch and Sea Witch Rising. These also happen within Disney's version as well.

  • There is a Sea King who is a widower, and his aged, wise mother kept watch over the six (perhaps more - only 5 older sisters are directly mentioned) sea-princesses. The grandmother wore twelve oysters on her tail to display her high rank, and merpeople live to be three hundred years old but are not immortal. When they die, they turn into sea foam and have no graves.

  • The youngest sea princess was fair with clear and delicate skin like a rose-leaf, and her eyes were as blue as the deepest sea.

  • Around the sea castle there was a beautiful garden, where bright red flowers and blossoms like flames of fire grew. Each of the princesses had a little plot of ground in the garden where she could dig and plant as she pleased. The youngest mermaid's garden contained flowers as red as the sun's rays.

  • The youngest mermaid was quiet and thoughtful, and cared greatly for her garden and the marble statue in it. The statue was of a handsome boy which had fallen to the bottom of the sea from a ship wreck.

  • Nothing gave the youngest princess as much pleasure as hearing about the world above the sea. She asked her grandmother to tell her everything she knew about life on the land where humans and animals were.

  • At age fifteen, each sea-princess was allowed go above the sea's surface and watch the towns and passing ships.

  • Mermaids have no tears and therefore suffer more.

  • The little mermaid encountered a ship at night alive with glowing lanterns, music, and dancing. It was celebrating the birthday of a prince. She swam toward the cabin windows, looked inside, and saw well-dressed people.

  • A great storm arrives and tears the ship apart, and the prince almost drowns. The little mermaid saves him, drags, him to a little bay on shore, and kisses him. To her, the prince seems like the statue in her garden.

  • The prince's palace had a balcony hanging over the sea and a flight of steps that reached down to it. After the little mermaid discovered where he lived, she spent many evenings and nights near the water of the palace watching the prince. By listening to other humans, she learns that the prince is a good person.

  • In order for a mermaid to obtain an immortal soul and remain human, a human man must love a mermaid more than anything else on earth and marry her. True love is always the key.

  • The little mermaid decides to go to the sea witch for help in obtaining her wish to live on land and be married to the prince.

  • Nothing grew where the sea witch lived. It was barren and grey except for a strange forest of polypi trees and flowers that were half animals and half plants. They looked like serpents with a hundred heads growing out of the ground, and everything within their reach they grabbed for with long arms and fingers - never letting it go. Many held the white skeletons of human beings who had drowned and sunk to the bottom of the sea.

  • The sea witch provides a draught that the little mermaid has to swim to the surface to drink and undergo the painful transformation of splitting her tail into two legs. She would retain her graceful movement and dance lightly, but every step would feel like she was walking on knives.

  • After becoming human, she could not return to being a mermaid. If the little mermaid did not win the prince's entire love and marry him, then the first morning after he married someone else her heart would break and she would become sea foam (die).

  • The sea witch demanded the little mermaid's voice as payment (via cutting out her tongue) because it was the best thing that she possessed, and the sea witch had to mix her own black blood with the draught.

  • Once the little mermaid took the sea witch's potion, she was discovered by the prince. He rescued her, asked her where she was from, and clothed her in beautiful garments. The little mermaid danced for the prince to please him because she could not speak or sing, and he called her his little foundling.

  • Her sisters came for her, filled with sorrow that she had left them. The little mermaid soon discovers that the prince is to be married to another woman that he loves, and she knows that she will perish after his marriage.

  • In order to save the little mermaid, her sisters cut their long hair and gave it to the sea witch in exchange for her help to save the little mermaid. The sea witch gave them a very sharp knife and with it the little mermaid was to plunge it into his heart on the prince's wedding night as he slept. When the warm blood fell upon her feet, the little mermaids legs would become a fish tail again.

  • Instead of choosing to kill the prince to save herself, the little mermaid chooses to die and becomes sea foam the morning after the prince marries another woman.

Why I Liked These Things Most:

While the overall story in each novel closely mirrors that of the original tale for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" (right down to a not-so-happy ending for the little mermaid characters), Sarah Henning creates her own unique version of the world. As someone who is passionate about fairytales, I greatly appreciated Henning's attention to detail in regards to the original tale and its origins. Right down to crafting the setting of the story in the very country where Hans Christian Andersen lived. Henning's writing style was also lush and well-paced, and many of the descriptions were sea oriented. As a reader, this often created the unique affect of feeling as though I was at the sea during a time when I couldn't be. For fans of fairytale retellings, I would highly recommend swimming among the pages of these books!

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