“The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” approaches those same themes in a different way.
Oh’s story does not follow Shim Cheong, but Mina, a girl from a Korean village who is ravaged by storms and death. The villagers believe that the Sea God is angry and that only his real bride can end his anger. So every year a young girl is sacrificed to the sea. The novel opens with Shim Cheong chosen as Sacrifice of the Year – but Mina, knowing her brother loves Shim Cheong, throws herself into the sea instead.
Mina doesn’t die. Instead, she descends into the Spirit Realm. Tied to her hand when she wakes up is the mystical Red String of Fate, a ribbon believed to bind a person to his or her destiny. Mina’s leads to the sea god, who, it turns out, isn’t a cruel deity, but rather a boy god in an enchanted sleep. Before Mina can wake him, three mysterious figures cut the Red String of Fate and steal Mina’s voice. Now Mina must figure out how to get her voice back, wake up the Sea God and save her people. Unless she can complete these tasks in 30 days, she will die and become a ghost herself.
What immediately captivated me in “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” was the rich world. Oh, who has previously written both contemporary and science fiction novels for young adults, vividly and evocatively describes the City of the Sea God, with its “hundreds, thousands of people dressed in vibrant jewel colors, as if the city were a great reef and the people the coral”; the “labyrinth of buildings” that stretches out in front of Mina “like a canvas”; the brightly colored fish that “swim with the wind, as if the sky were an ocean”; the golden light that shines from lanterns “like sails of ships on fire.” Seeing the city of the Sea God, Mina thinks, ‘I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. I’ve never seen anything more terrifying.” I had the same thought as I read. I found something wonderful and new on every page, and I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to explore this wonderful new world further.
And then there’s Mina herself, a character who is one of our great YA heroines. She’s smart, rebellious, assertive and, after everything she and her people have been through, she’s crazy. Why do girls have to sacrifice themselves? People give up so much to honor the gods, and for what? “The gods have chosen not to grant our wishes”, she thinks. When she finally sees the Sea God, Mina feels no love. “It’s darker, hotter and infinitely stronger. l hate it.”
Hers is the justified anger that arises when confronted with injustice. But critically, Mina has never been blinded by her anger. She tries to help who she can, when she can. “I ran to the beach not to become the bride of the Sea God, but to save my brother. But I’m here now, and if there’s a chance that I can save not just him, but everyone, then I have to try.”