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Book Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea by Axie Oh

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea by Axie Oh

Inspired by the classic Korean legend, The Tale of Shim Cheong, Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea is a story brimming with heart and hope. It invites readers into an enchanting spirit realm of gods and mythical beasts, of mysteries and sacrifices, as a selfless girl ventures far from home to help the people and the place she loves most.

Mina has watched her homeland ravaged by deadly storms. Once protected by the legendary Sea God, Mina’s people believe their god has forsaken them, cursing them to live in a world of suffering and death. To appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hope that one day the god will find his ‘true bride’, ending the pain and despair. As the most beautiful girl in the village, Shim Cheong is their last hope. But on the night of her sacrifice, Shim Cheong is followed out to sea by Joon, Mina’s brother, who refuses to let his beloved go. To save both Shim Cheong and Joon, Mina throws herself into the sea instead.

Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city where spirits and gods wander the streets, Mina realises that the Sea God hasn’t forsaken her people after all. He’s trapped in an enchanted sleep. And it’s not just Mina’s homeland that’s suffering. The Spirit Realm is being held together by a delicate thread – protected by a motley crew of gods, spirits and mythical creatures who are fending off malevolent forces who seek to take control from the incapacitated Sea God. Mina knows she must do something to help but she doesn’t have much time. A human cannot live long in the Spirit Realm before they die, and if she can’t wake the Sea God, she’s not the only one who will perish.

In this moment, I don’t feel beautiful. Nor do I feel very brave, my hands trembling. But there’s a warmth in my chest that nothing and no one can take from me. This is the strength I call upon now, because even if I am afraid, I know I’ve chosen this. I am the maker of my own destiny.”

Axie Oh’s retelling of the Shim Cheong tale is instantly captivating, opening with the stirring scene of Mina’s sacrifice driven by her love for her brother, which sets a beautiful pace and sense of place that continues all the way through the book. Oh’s descriptions of the Spirit World are so vivid that it’s impossible not to fall under the novel’s fairytale-esque spell. And that’s even before you get to the story’s unassuming yet courageous heroine, and the motley crew of spirits and gods that help her along the way. Mina and her reluctant-protectors-turned-allies – the heart-shatteringly thoughtful Shin and his fierce companions, mischievous Namgi and broody Kirin – are all so effortlessly endearing. These characters make reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea not only a genuine pleasure, but also a book you can wholeheartedly lose yourself in.

The story is deeply embedded with East Asian mythology and folklore that goes beyond the legend of Shim Cheong. It has a distinct Hayao Miyazaki feel to it and with the Spirit Realm, it’s easy to see where any Spirited Away comparisons come from. Both are poignant tales that weave traditional cultures with supernatural fantasy. They’re both about love, loss, identity, morality, and the worlds of the living and the dead. Yet The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea feels utterly original too, thanks to Oh’s unique characters and the way that she centres the story in a feminist light. Mina is driven not only by her love for her family, but for all the girls that are sacrificed, past and present. She wants to save them all but she has to save herself too. This kind of compassion for others is what makes the world – both fictional and real – a better place.

A soulful story with big-hearted characters and a truly whimsical setting, The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea offers readers a dose of pure fantasy escapism. Something we need now more than ever.

★★★★★

The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 22 February, 2022

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