Thanks to my K-drama obsession, I've started learning Korean (진짜), I have a new favorite actor (hello, Lee Dong Wook), and I've become increasingly curious about Korean folktales.
I was familiar with the Rabbit in the Moon and the Gumiho, but the Snail Bride and the Imugi were new to me. I also did not know about "The Tale of Shim Cheong," where the beautiful daughter of a blind man throws herself into the sea and is taken to the underwater palace of the Dragon King.
Axie Oh's deliciously lovely novel The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on this tale, so I was very excited to learn more.
In this retelling, the perfect Shim Cheong is destined to be the Sea God's hundredth bride. She will be his final bride, the locals say, bringing peace to both the angry god and the village that has been beleaguered by violent storms for a century. But as Oh's story opens, a young warrior named Joon has lost his heart to Cheong and is about to risk everything to stop the sacrifice. To save the life of her brother, Joon's 16-year-old sister Mina jumps into the sea at the last minute and gives herself to the Sea God instead.
Upon arriving in the magical underwater land filled with spirits, demons, gods, and creatures of legend (including the giant snake Imugi), brave Mina's destiny changes once again. The Red String of Fate binding her to the Sea God is severed by the handsome-but-coldhearted Lord Shin, who then steals her soul and her voice along with it. When Mina attempts to retrieve her soul, the Red String of Fate reappears, only this time it attaches her to Lord Shin.
Mina has but a month to investigate the Sea God's curse and detach herself from Lord Shin before losing her mortality forever. In the meantime, she must seek out hungry fox demons for information, dodge thieves and assassins, and deal with a superbly angry moon goddess. The longer Mina stays in the underwater world, the more bonds she makes with the souls and soulless there. And every mystery she solves seems to lead to even more questions. Will she be able to reform her bond with the Sea God to reach her ultimate goal of saving her village? Is the Sea God even truly cursed? When the time comes, as it must, the reader is desperate to know if Mina will be able to leave Shin and all the friends she has grown to love.
Throughout the story are woven the timeless topics of faith, hope, responsibility, and loyalty to one's family, be they blood family or chosen family. And of course one of my favorite themes in all of literature: fate versus free will. What is it that defines our destiny? If our path is truly one of our own making, do we trust ourselves enough to make the "right" choices? What if we find our goals changing as we go along?
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is an exciting and romantic fantasy that I loved with my whole heart. My biggest complaint is that I wish it had been longer, which isn't really a complaint at all. Mina is the master of her own fate, a rare fairy tale heroine with her own agency reminiscent of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and the mystical land of spirits through which she travels will delight fans of Hayao Miyazaki. Readers will connect with Oh's clever heroine immediately and delight as Mina leads them on a whirlwind adventure.
And if you, like me, have fallen hard in love with the legends woven into fantastic dramas like Hotel Del Luna and Tale of the Nine-Tailed, you'll want to get your hands on The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea immediately and keep it in a special place on your bookshelf, for the express purpose of enjoying Axie Oh's magical tale again and again!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.