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Episode 14: Thoughts on The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

So Maggie Tokuda-Hall created this beautiful sea-centered world and then expected me NOT to talk about it?? Get ready for a discussion about how magic relates to linguistic hypotheses and why people have personified the sea for centuries. **contains spoilers**

HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist


Julia Schifini is a writer, historian, voice actor, and cohost of the podcasts Spirits and Join the Party. She's awesome and fun and you can follow her on Twitter at @JuliaSchifini. Check out her fiction birdwatching podcast, Who Watches the Birdwatchers.


Moiya 0:16

Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. I've been doing these extra episode formats for a while now. But I just realized I never explained why I think they fit together. So the show's about fictional world building, right? Well, that's because I want to teach you how to build your own worlds. If you're working on a creative project, searching for an escape from these shitty times, or just looking to pick up a new skill, this show's for you. If you want to build your own world, you have to understand two things. One, how our real world works. And two, the fictional worlds that other humans have created. And when learning a new skill, it always helps to hear how other people do it. The three episode formats of the show, expert panel, world review, and world builder interview, they do those things, respectively. I just figured I should tell you what the whole show is about, you know, before you listen to another episode. Now let's get to the show. Thanks for agreeing to do this.

Julia 1:38

Of course. My pleasure.

Moiya 1:40

Do you want to introduce yourself so the listeners know who you are if they didn't get to Exolore from Spirits?

Julia 1:46

Well, it's a fine show on its own already, so I could see it going either way. My name is Julia Schifini. I am the co-host of Spirits podcast, which is a boozy dive into myths and legends. Every week we pour a drink and learn about a new story from around the world. I'm also a player and co-producer on Join the Party, which is a actual play podcast.

Moiya 2:09

Yes, I listen to both of those. I'm a big fan. What do you do when you're not podcasting? Who are you as a person?

Julia 2:16

I'm always podcasting, that's the problem. I'm Bruce Banner, but for podcasting. I do a lot of stuff. I like hiking. I am a part time professional wrestler, kinda. I know how to professional wrestle sort of.

Moiya 2:34

What ?

Julia 2:35

Yea, fun fact about me. I've been training for like a year and a half at this point. And it's a lot of fun, you know.

Moiya 2:44

So today, we're gonna be talking about The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea, which is this beautiful book by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. And we both have this same copy. I saw this on Twitter a few weeks ago. And it was, you know, this person whose taste I trust tweeted out this, like amazing review of the book that was essentially just screaming and all caps about how good the book was. And I was like, "well, I have to buy that immediately." And then I did and I read it. And I also wanted to talk to you about it because you said you liked it.

Julia 3:15

Yeah, I think I saw your tweet responding to that tweet. And I was like, wait, no, but seriously, you got to read it. It's very, very good.

Moiya 3:24

Yeah. So now we're going to, I say review that feels too strong. Mostly, this is just like, our thoughts and musings on the worldbuilding that went into this book because a lot of world building did and sometimes when world building is done well, it's subtle. So sometimes you might not pick up on all of it. So let's let's discuss.

Julia 3:46

Absolutely. I'm always a big fan of when I open a book up and there's a map at the beginning. I'm like, oh, hell yes, this author knows exactly what I'm looking for. I need to know everything about this world. I need to fill it all the details. I'm going to keep flipping back to it every time they mentioned a new place. It's my favorite thing.

Moiya 4:04

Yeah, I'm with you there 100%. In fact, when I go to the bookstore, you know, back when I used to go physically to the bookstore, and I could browse, I would always open it to the front to see if there was a map. And if there was, that really increased the chance that I would actually buy that book.

Julia 4:19

Genuinely a selling point.

Moiya 4:21

Mm hmm. All right, so I have some points. The first one I'm going to bring up is that I thought this book was a really great example of what I call - I'm coining this term now small world building.

Julia 4:35


Moiya 4:37

So you can have world building that's like an entire planet. Sometimes you have worlds that are entire galaxies or universes. I see Gideon the Ninth behind you.

Julia 4:46

I haven't started it yet. That's my pile of to read, but I'm very excited.

Moiya 4:50

Got it. Yeah, so Gideon the Ninth is an example of a book that doesn't just focus on one world there are multiple worlds there. Multiple planets. In The Mermaid, the Witch in the Sea, I was really struck by how contained everything felt. And I think, you know, it's because so much of the story was told from the perspective of different characters. And so world building can be creating this giant space to set your story, but it can also be just figuring out what the characters' worlds are.

Julia 5:22


Moiya 5:23

Because we're all walking around experiencing the world like, we're the main characters in it. And so world building can be very intimate. And on smaller scales.

Julia 5:33

Yeah, absolutely. And I really liked it just looking at the map at the beginning. I've been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender, because it's on Netflix now and who hasn't rewatched it. But it felt very familiar to me, because it's an archipelago of islands. And these different, like, bodies of mass that are connected by the sea, and your characters are traveling throughout it; and it feels very similar vibes in that way. And I think that like, you know, the cultures that we're seeing that kind of inspire the islands here do feel very similar to the Avatar: Last Airbender styled stuff.

Moiya 6:12

Yeah, similar foundations there.

Julia 6:15

For sure.

Moiya 6:17

I am a nerd. And so I really wanted to figure out like, is the stuff we see in the map the entire world, because there are a lot of references throughout the book to the known world, which to me implies that there is an unknown world and they haven't had either the time or the technical ability to explore outside of this archipelago. Thank you for bringing back that SAT word. And so I started to figure it out with timing, actually. So back in like the 1700s, which is when Pirates of the Caribbean was set, so that's what I went with. It took about six weeks for the average ship to cross the Atlantic. And then in this book, Evelyn teaches Florian how to read and I imagine that has to take several weeks. So, she teaches Florian how to read before the whole slave ship thing is revealed. Which means, you know, these landmasses, these islands must be really far apart. Like, at least as far apart as Europe in the US. I'm thinking.

Julia 7:25

In my head, I was picturing the journey to be like about two months or so from the one island to the next that they're traveling on. So that does like kind of, you know, in my mind, fill it out. But yeah, that's so interesting. That's such an interesting way to calculate the size of the world. I love that. This is why your brain is smarter than mine in a different way.

Moiya 7:47

In a different way. Yeah. I also just really like building things from, like physical facts. So another thing I noticed was, they have the Cold World, which is up where like Quark is, yeah. And the Floating Islands are, and then lower when when Florian or Flora was talking about Tustwe. They described it as having a lot of people with dark skin. So that's clearly a spot that gets a lot of extra direct sunlight. And to me, that shows that this little world spans latitudes. So it goes from a place that gets a lot of direct sunlight to a place that gets very little direct sunlight, which is why people from Cork are pale and have red hair, like, Ireland, or something. But it did make me think that this is probably just one hemisphere.

Julia 8:42

Yeah. Just the northern hemisphere, or southern hemisphere did. They're probably not using the same cardinal directions as we are necessarily so.

Moiya 8:50

But there's a little compass on the map.

Julia 8:52

Yeah, there we go.

Moiya 8:53

So yeah, this is the northern hemisphere, because north is cold.

Julia 8:56


Moiya 8:57

That's so fascinating.

Julia 8:58

Again, this is like stuff I didn't think of while I was reading. I'm like, oh, of course, there's a hot part and a cold part sure. That's how the world works.

Moiya 9:07

Which also means that this planet must have a similar tilt, or obliquity to our world.

Julia 9:13

Interesting. I'm always fascinated with like, fantasy novels like this one in the idea of like, is this just a alternate reality version of our world? Or some sort of like, alternate timeline kind of thing? Like, is this just earth but different things happen to it? You know what I mean? So I tend to kind of take that for granted when I'm reading fantasy, that it's just the assumption that this is our planet, but you know, in a different space in time, that kind of thing.

Moiya 9:43

I think a lot of people take that for granted too - writers even.

Julia 9:47

Yeah, no, I don't think a lot of writers are like, well, you know, is my planet not earth? because that's really all we know. And then you start getting into like, crossing the line between fantasy and science fiction, and then trying to figure out like what the physics and mechanics of a different planet other than Earth would be. So definitely something I don't think a lot of fantasy writers think about before diving in. And that's not a bad thing necessarily. But I think it's an interesting thing that you could get maybe bogged down in as a writer.

Moiya 10:20

What did you notice?

Julia 10:21

I was going to talk about the Sea as a character. But now I'm thinking if this is only a small part of the world, and you know, my brain, immediately, I started thinking about mythology, if the sea is a character, and in some forms, like either a goddess or a deity or something like that. Is the Sea, the goddess of only this area of the ocean? Are there multiple sea goddesses throughout the world here? Or is this the Sea in general for the entire world?

Moiya 10:48

I love that question.

Julia 10:51

I don't have an answer to it. Well, I kind of do have an answer to that, in that I understand it. The way that for one in the book, the sea is personified, but it's really only ever talking about the known world as established in the book. So I think it might be a much more centralized, like, localized spirit of the Sea, rather than all of the salt waters of the world here.

Moiya 11:20

No, yeah, and I think that there's some science to back that up, too. Because when you look at the ocean or the sea, it's all continous, you know, like, it's all touching each other, except for some unfortunate landlocked places. And they talked about that, too. And when that one mermaid who wanted to not be a mermaid, got sent to the middle of a desert.

Julia 11:39


Moiya 11:39

The sea is cruel. So they talk about the behavior of the sea when it rises, and when it's turbulent and things like that. And I think that that's really fair, because this collection of islands is roughly in a circle, and there's just this big section of sea in the middle. And when you get landmasses, that can interrupt currents, then you get like an isolated behavior for the chunk of ocean that's between those landmass? So it's very possible that this part of the ocean or sea does actually behave differently and can be considered a totally different person than the rest of the sea.

Julia 12:19

And I think it's really interesting too, because in that case, like, in the book, the Sea puts her memories into her children, which are the mermaids. And so I wonder ... you could probably tell me like a science thing that that is equivalent to, but the idea of like, a queen bee, or a host or something like that, creating a hive mind, but also separating them is fascinating to me, like each individual being a memory but existing separately from the host, so to speak. I don't know if that's a thing. Like I'm thinking, "do mushrooms do that"? I don't know.

Moiya 12:54

I can't think of an organism that behaves in exactly that way. But what this reminds me of is caterpillars. So that the Sea, I'm thinking of it as this giant collection of goop, and the mermaids can absorb memories from this goop. And what happens to caterpillars when they go into their cocoons to become butterflies is that they mushify, like their entire body turns to goop. And then they rebuild a new body from the same goop, but they can keep their memories afterwards. So they've done tests where they train caterpillars to do different tasks. And then the caterpillars metamorphise into butterflies. And those butterflies can remember how to do those tasks.

Julia 13:42

Yeah, that sounds like a thing, but also the most fascinating thing I've ever heard.

Moiya 13:48

Yeah, it sounds like magic to me.

Julia 13:50

It does, right? Like the idea of like, an existing memory even after? And like, that's the science thing, too. It's like, well, if we ever figure out how to like, teleport people by like taking apart their molecules, and then putting them back together again. Are they the same person? Will they still have the same memories, all of that? So I think that's like a really fascinating mix of fantasy and science/science fiction. That's cool.

Moiya 14:13

Yeah, absolutely. And what you said reminded me of other personified ocean things. The two that came to mind were Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology, which scholars think were probably whirlpools that got caught up in the Strait of Messina off of Greece. I imagine. And whirlpools are pretty awesome because they can last for a long time. They can last months. And they can come back regularly because it just depends on currents moving in the opposite direction, which can happen through wind, and different weather patterns. And those repeat.

Julia 14:54

Man mythology and science meeting together is my favorite thing in the whole world. It's just there's nothing better than that, it's legitimately I just get so excited.

Moiya 15:04

Yeah, I agree. Now I want to talk about magic, which is not science.

Julia 15:08

Yes, let's do it. But there might be some science behind it. You never know.

Moiya 15:12

Maybe. Yeah. What did you think of this magic system? First of all?

Julia 15:17

So it does feel very much like ... modern Wiccan and Neo-paganism, practices, like you have to give something up in order to get something. And I think that also, you know, stems from, obviously a little bit of cultural appropriation from stuff like Voodan and that sort of thing. But I do like the idea because I do like the scientific idea of like, you know, equal and opposite reactions, and like the exchange of energy. You can't create or destroy energy, it has to, like, just form a different form. So I think that it's very much a classic magic, in my opinion, it just feels more tactile than like, you know, other various forms of magic in a lot of different pop culture.

Moiya 16:01

Mm hmm. Yeah, I love systems of magic that are based on words or stories or strongly held beliefs. So I remember one of the first fantasy series I got really into as a kid was Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard. And the magic system in those books is based on words, like there's a special language and a special arrangement of words that can describe the fabric of reality and can therefore be used to manipulate reality. And then strongly held beliefs reminded me of the magic system in The Kingkiller Chronicles, where to make something happen, you have to believe that you can make it happen. And all of that, you know, the way that words can shape reality reminded me of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Julia 16:51

Okay, tell me about that, I don't know what this is. Go, go for it.

Moiya 16:55

So it's this linguistic hypothesis from like the 1920s. And two people I think, worked on it kind of independently. Some dude with the last name, Sapir and another dude with the last name, Whorf, and there are different levels of this hypothesis. So there's like a strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which other people call "linguistic determinism", and there's a weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which people call "linguistic relativism". But basically, what it says is the words that you use, and your language can actually shape and influence your thoughts and your behaviors. And so there are a few pretty cool examples of this. The classic one that I've always heard is people talking about Homer's wine-dark sea, and how if Homer was describing the sea as being wine-dark, then that says something about their language and their perceptions of the world, because the see doesn't look that color to us. But that's, like the least serious example. And there are some real consequences to this. So another, this doesn't have real consequences. But different languages have different conventions for how you can actually put together words and concepts. So in Turkish, for example, there are two different past tenses. There's a past tense for something you actually experienced firsthand. And there's another past tense for something that you inferred or learned from another person telling you about it.

Julia 18:21


Moiya 18:22

Yeah, and so that changes the way that you perceive things. Because when you're speaking, you have to actually be cognizant of how you learned that information, which I think is helpful.

Julia 18:34

I think that's really interesting, too, because I think of the criticism of like, our generation using, "like", you know what I mean? So, for example, most of our generation uses "like" to get the point across that what we're saying is not exactly the thing that happened. For example, I can be like, "well, I said this", and they were like, "oh my god, I can't believe that", when that probably wasn't the exact phrase that they used, but it's getting the general point across. So I really like the idea that, you know, this is a thing that kind of shows, oh, this is not the exact truth of the situation, but it's getting the point across regardless.

Moiya 19:15

Yeah, I really love that too. One of the more serious consequences of this is sexist language that we use, like, "hey, dudes", or "hey guys", or the fact that most of the jobs are described as gendered like firemen or maleman or something like that. And that actually does change the way that people view those professions. And it leads to young children thinking that only a certain type of person can actually perform those jobs. So that's like a real consequence, but those are all based on the weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the linguistic relativism.

Julia 19:56

I'm excited for the more intense form.

Moiya 20:00

So the more intense form has a lot of criticisms brought against it. And I remember watching the movie Arrival with my partner who studied psychology in college, and he just walked out of that movie theater so disappointed. He was like, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been disproven so many times. Why did they use that in this movie? Um, but I think that's because it was used in the short story, which was written a long time ago. But the the stronger version of the hypothesis, the "linguistic determinism" has been pretty much debunked at this point, in the strictest sense. So the big point that led to debunking the strong version of this hypothesis was that in one of the original papers, the example cited was that, Hopi tribes had different ways of experiencing the passage of time. And they had different words for experiencing the passage of time. But then it was revealed that the person who wrote that original paper, I think it was Whorf had never met anyone from the Hopi tribe. And then someone who actually went and spent time among the Hopi found that they, in fact, did not have a drastically different experience of time.

Julia 21:16

White people, please just stop doing that. Let indigenous people talk for themselves, especially when it comes to this stuff. Like there are plenty of indigenous scholars who write about their own traditions, among other things, but like, let them be there. Let them talk about it, please. I beg of you.

Moiya 21:34

Yeah. do that now. I mean, this was in the 1920s. When, you know, things were different. But that's not an excuse. Like it was still wrong.

Julia 21:41

Still bad.

Moiya 21:43

Yeah. So that that's, that's my little soapbox on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Julia 21:48

No, I love it.

Moiya 21:49

The weak stuff is cool. You can do that. Don't use sexist language. Don't do other things that shape the way we see the world in negative lights. But the strong version is no go.

Julia 22:01

Yeah, no, go. Don't do that anymore. Bad. I haven't seen Arrival, but I'm just like, come on guys.

Moiya 22:08

They did it in a cool way with Arrival, and you know, it's aliens, so you know, like, maybe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis works for aliens.

Julia 22:16

Every time I think of that movie, I think of To Serve Man from The Twilight Zone. And I'm just like, it's the same plot, right? Basically, the same thing, I imagine. I will spoil the plot for you for this one TheTwilight Zone episode that came out in the 60s. It's basically aliens arrive, and they're like, "hey, we'd like to help mankind by coming here." And they accidentally like drop a book. And so the person is trying to decipher and they're an alien language as these aliens come and like, create world peace and solve a bunch of like, our technological issues and stuff like that. And then they're about to take a bunch of people off planet to take them back to their home planet, like teach them about that. And the cryptographer or whatever who was deciphering their book comes He's like, "no, the book it says to serve man, but it's a cookbook!" It's classic.

Moiya 23:08

That's awesome. Also, don't go with the aliens.

Julia 23:12

Don't go with the aliens! It's just not a good idea. I mean, unless you want to sacrifice yourself for the point of like making observations about an alien race and not knowing what your fate is going to be sure fine, like make that sacrifice but like, don't trust the aliens right away. They've only been here for like a month.

Moiya 23:31

Also, unless they have given so much evidence, like overwhelming evidence that their home planet or even their ship is actually hospitable to what humans need. You know, if they don't come from a planet that has a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere, they're not going to have oxygen on their spaceship, you will die.

Julia 23:49

Yeah, yeah. [There's] so much about aliens where I would be very excited if they existed but also extremely nervous.

Moiya 23:49

Yeah, if anyone ever comes into contact with aliens, you can come to me and I will kill all of your buzz about them. That's a promise.

Julia 24:06

An A+ promise there.

Moiya 24:08


Julia 24:10

I would love to talk about the idea of like mermaids as a commodity in this world. And the idea that no mermaid has really been able to survive because mermaids are seen as a commodity.

Moiya 24:24

Hmm, yes, let's talk about that.

Julia 24:27

I think that's really interesting. And like a really interesting take on the idea of, like, we have to treat other people with kindness and from a perspective that like people shouldn't just be used. So the idea that Evelyn is able to keep this mermaid alive because she is giving something that it needs out of the goodness of her heart, rather than out of like, I want this to survive so I can take its blood and sell it as a drug. Right? So I think that's just like a really interesting perspective. And especially like the idea again, in all mythology, like you do something good for a god and like that has consequences, whether those are good or bad is like a huge thing in mythology. And I like that the way that the book plays with that.

Moiya 25:14

Yeah, I like even more that Evelyn didn't do something nice to the mermaid because she wanted a boon from the sea. She just did it because she wanted to be nice to this mermaid.

Oh hey, while we're on the topic of doing nice things for others without needing a reward, let's talk about voting. Maybe I'm preaching to the choir, but this podcast is the platform I have. So I'm gonna use it. And I can't say enough about how important this election is. Climate policies, reproductive rights, and oh, the very backbone of our democracy are all at stake. One of the candidates, let's be real, it was Trump, because fuck not naming names, has basically announced that he'll dispute the outcome of the election if he doesn't win. And that's terrifying, and the electoral college sucks. But there are a lot of people who see the damage Trump has done more than you think. And if we all vote, they can't ignore us. It's just statistics, really. The more data points or votes there are, the more accurate the result will be. So head to to make a voting plan, if you're voting by mail, request that ballot and if you're voting in person, figure out where to go, and when you can start going there. Also look to see what else will be on your ballot, because local elections frickin matter. So go do that now, and then come back to listen to the rest of the episode. Yes, do it in that order. Because even if you get distracted, and don't come back, I'd rather you vote than listen to the end of this episode.

Julia 26:42

I know, right? And like, the fact that none of the sailors were able to figure that out for however many years like, literally [with] the idea of their cultural knowledge of what mermaids are, and how to take care of them, no one thought like, oh, what if I just treated this thing with kindness? And then, you know, maybe something good would happen. But who cares, because this is a living thing. And we should treat it with kindness. And it makes me really sad because like, I used to love fishing. And then I realized, like, man fish have like, emotions and stuff, and I really shouldn't be like catching them and potentially eating them. I am not a vegetarian or vegan or anything like that. But I do feel bad when I'm the person like doing the thing to the animal in question.

Moiya 26:45

That's the first step, right?

Julia 27:30

Yeah, yeah, that is, but I also like to think that you can do things. I think you can basically eat meat humanely, and in a way that like, honors the animals that you're eating, basically. But it's a whole thing.

Moiya 27:45

Yeah, and just to really hammer that point home, I didn't realize this until you said it. But it's so incredibly sad that the Sea gave this gift to Evelyn and Flora at the end of the book, because Evelyn was kind enough to take care of the mermaids, which shows that this is such a rare act that no one has ever done. No one has ever shown the mermaids or the Sea kindness except for maybe the Pirate Supreme is so sad. People are horrible in this world.

Julia 28:17

Yeah, the idea that in living memory, no one has been able to like really keep a mermaid alive out of the goodness of their hearts. That's extremely fucked up. Like I get it. Like, I imagine like a decent chunk of their economy is based off of this illicit mermaid blood drug. So I get it like, yeah, greed can overtake people. And that's really sad and upsetting and terrible. But the fact that no one in living memory or at least there's no stories about it, or anything like that. is absolutely buckwild.

Moiya 28:52

Yeah, yeah. Speaking of stories, I didn't think about this ahead of time, but -

Julia 28:57

Go for it.

Moiya 28:58

There's a prophecy in this book, but it's like super hidden. And I have said before on this podcast, I will say it again. I'm a sucker for a prophecy but I didn't even recognize it when it was put in front of my face. The sailor song about you know, two loves and the sea is the story of the book. And I feel like there's a reason why people know this story. Like did the Sea give this prophecy a long time ago? Did a witch give this? Like what happened? Why is this story in this world's folklore?

Julia 29:35

There's an implication that the first witch is the Pirate King, right? Or something to the effect of the first which is the Sea perhaps? Or has something to do with like, their legacy? I had that open.

Moiya 29:51

Yeah, I had that. So the first witch, who lived 1,000 years before this story takes place, was the witch who captured the moon and then tricked the beautiful queen. And I actually did wish the author told us more about the first witch and how they got their powers. This seems to be a magic system where you don't have to inherit powers, and it's a skill that you can learn, but like who taught this woman?

Julia 30:17

Well, I think it's really interesting too, because like, that's a thing in history that I really like. I really like anecdotal parts of history, where it's like, "ah, yes, you know, the first person to invent cheese was someone who is carrying milk in their wine skin. And it's slowly fermented as they were shaking and traveling on a camel. And that's how we got cheese". And like, that's probably like a purely like, made up story to explain it. But someone at some point had to discover this skill set, and start honing it and crafting it. And I think that it is really interesting to kind of not explain how magic and witches came into being, because it's probably a story that was like lost to the annals of time, and no one really understands how it happened and why it happened.

Moiya 31:03

Yeah, that's a good point. Also, since this magic system is based on belief, I imagine it's something that's much easier to pick up, before science gets in the way. But before you have other ideas of how the world should work, it's a lot easier to hold ultimate realities in your mind, which is what you have to do to cast spells in this world, which also has interesting implications for how many witches there will be going forward. As they just get more and more advanced, which isn't inevitable, but it's likely, then it's going to be harder for people to use magic.

Julia 31:43

Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. But also at the same time, like, look, how quickly is it Flora or Florian by that point when they are learning the magic? I'm forgetting.

Moiya 31:53

I think that's when they're like, "oh, I'm both."

Julia 31:56

Oh, it could be both. Okay. I think it's really interesting that like Flora/Florian is able to learn magic, like fairly quickly. It's not like, quick, but I think it's like almost comparable to the amount of time that it took them to learn how to read. So I think it's I think it's really interesting.

Moiya 32:13

Maybe they're just a really fast learner.

Julia 32:16

Yeah, it might just be like an innate skill plus very good teachers.

Moiya 32:19

Mm hmm. I couldn't find this when I went back to look through the book. And this is why reading a fantasy book for work is such a fundamentally different experience from reading a fantasy book for fun. Because you like you have to keep yourself a little bit removed from the world you can't get fully immersed, but I remember Zenobia, the witch who trains Flora/Florian saying at one point something about destiny.

Julia 32:46

Yes, interesting.

Moiya 32:48

Like this is your destiny, but I don't remember it ever being explained why.

Julia 32:53

Yeah, I wonder if that implies that Flora/Florian is part of the prophecy? And as such, this witch knows about it. And it's following that prophecy.

Moiya 33:04

Yeah, like did this witch come up with the prophecy? Did did the Sea come up with a prophecy when the witch made that blunder that sent the mermaid to the Oasis and took away the Pirate Supreme to be?

Julia 33:19

Yeah, I think it would be really interesting if there is a belief system formed around this prophecy. Or it's very possible, but the prophecy could be a cyclical thing where it is like, here's the experience. And now there is another set who are going to have the same experience and then another set down the line will have that same experience and it is something that is relived over and over and over again. Kind of like the Norse idea of Ragnarok. It is a cyclical thing that is going to happen, has happened, is going to happen again.

Moiya 33:53

I like that. It's a nice prophecy.

Julia 33:56

I like that. I do love a cyclical problem. I'm a big fan of that.

Moiya 34:00

The fact that it's just disguised as an average sea shanty, is amazing to me.

Julia 34:08

I love a sea shanty. I want sea shanties to come back into style, because they are one of my favorite genres I want like you know, rockin sea shanties like electric violin happening there. I have a great playlist on Spotify, which is called "Sea shanties for thots".

Moiya 34:25

You should know that that's "thots", t-h-o-t-s, and not "thoughts" like the brains zaps that give rise to the human experience of consciousness and I think that makes the playlist a lot better.

Julia 34:35

I just liked the idea of the city in the mountains just like the the carving of a city into the cliff side, I think is like a legit thing, in our world, but I just want more of that in our world. I want more just like beautiful cliff side, you know, apartments basically. More of that please. And I do love that when it pops up into fantasy novels as like a legit like full city carved into this mountain kind of thing. Again, pulling back into "Avatar The Last Airbender". The air temples that are carved into the side of the mountains was like one of my favorite pieces for that show.

Moiya 35:12

Absolutely stunning. I can't help but think when I see that how many people must have died to make it happen?

Julia 35:21

Yeah, that is true.

Moiya 35:23

Because that labor takes, you know, so long and it's so intense and it's dangerous. They're, I assume, dangling from a cliff while trying to carve homes into this cliff face. Maybe they did it with magic back when there were more witches?

Julia 35:41

That's possible. For sure. I was also thinking that so I was like yeah, that may be magic so. It's probably okay.

Moiya 35:48

But there's nothing in this world's lore that says anything about witches doing something good for society.

Julia 35:56

But I also think that if we're basing it kind of off of our idea of witchcraft, and like the the folk witch, so to speak, folk healers, it's very much like a hush hush kind of thing. It's like, yes, you go to the folk healer, you don't really talk about it, though. Like that is like your worst case scenario situation is you go to that. So there might be like a bit of a taboo or something like that in talking about the history of witches in both society, but also in the like, cultural framework of society and the individuals being like, you don't talk about that. You don't talk about it. If you went to a witch, don't tell anyone about it. You will be judged, even though everyone else in the village has gone to her at some point, you know?

Moiya 36:38

Also very possible that witches did do this very nice thing. And then people just intentionally scrubbed that from history. Because, sexism.

Julia 36:47

Yeah, again, that happens so often in just like history and mythology in general is like the idea that this person helped us. But then another group came in be like, those people are bad. And you're like, you know what? You're right. And we're not going to talk about it anymore. All the good things they did forget it.

Moiya 37:04

Yeah. Just in general, what did you think of this book, first, the world building and then the book in general?

Julia 37:14

For the world building? You brought up some great points that I wasn't thinking about when I was reading the book for the first time. When I kind of dig into a fantasy novel, I kind of just like, take it all in and don't think about any of the consequences until I finished the book. But I just really, really enjoyed it. I love just magic, and pirates, and like island nations and stuff like that. Those are my favorite like, points in a fantasy novel. So this hit home for me and all the all the best ways. And I think in general, the book was like a lot of fun. And I want to read more about this world and about these characters. I basically read this all in like a single day while I was laying out in the lawn at my mother-in-law's house. So much so that I forgot to put suntan lotion on and got a sunburn. So I walked inside like after closing the book for the final time. I was like, I'm very pink. Oh, no. Oh, very bad.

Moiya 38:11

I mean, the characters in the book probably also got a lot of sunburn. You're just immersing yourself in the story.

Julia 38:17

Really. It's what it's all about. Everyone except for the the one woman who's constantly carrying around an umbrella with her. Well, her servant is but you know what I mean.

Moiya 38:26

Exactly. Cool. Would you recommend this? You did recommend it to me.

Julia 38:31

Highly recommend. I would recommend it to anyone listening. It's a fantastic book, pick it up. It's great.

Moiya 38:37

Yeah, I feel the same. I just love the amount of not for nothing. There's so much queer rep in this book that we didn't talk about the queer rep.

Julia 38:48

It's fantastic.

Moiya 38:48

It's amazing. And the fact that this author Maggie Tokuda-Hall was able to build a world where there are simultaneously islands and I assume countries might be the best word for it, polities that are very accepting of queer folks. And you know, gender nonconforming and non binary folks, like Tustwe, where they seem to be very accepting. And then there are other places where they're just super not accepting. I know that this is outside the scope of a book, but I just want to see all of the world building work that went into this. I have so many questions.

Julia 39:27

Yeah, I want to see the notebook in which all these are written down in.

Moiya 39:30

Yeah, we we asked a lot of questions throughout this discussion. I just want to have the answers to all of them we can come up with our own but it's totally different to see what's going on in the mind of the person creating this world. I wish I could do that.

Julia 39:46

Well, maybe you can have Maggie on and she could answer some of those questions.

Moiya 39:51

if you're listening, Maggie. The invitation is open. Alright, yeah. I love this book. I couldn't put it down. I actually missed a meeting because I got too wrapped up in reading this book. But yeah, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in like small world fantasy. And if you like pirates, this has a lot of great pirate stuff in it, but doesn't romanticize pirate life, which I really appreciate. And it's a nice nice young adult romantic fantasy.

Julia 40:29

Definitely pick it up. It's delightful. I was so rooting for those two characters to fall in love by the end so it was perfect.

Moiya 40:36

Yeah. Oh, the fact that mermaids can just be created. Something we didn't talk about, but that's awesome.

Julia 40:42

Yes, also very, very cool. I love it.

Moiya 40:44

Yeah. All right. Well, then. Thanks for chatting with me.

Julia 40:49

Of course. Thank you for having me. This was delightful. I love this book and I love talking about it.

Moiya 40:54

Yeah, me too. How can people learn more about you and find more what you're doing Where can they follow you?

Julia 41:00

Uh, people can listen to me rant about mythology on Spirits if they would like to and they liked my voice and like the thoughts that I have or you can listen to me be a nonbinary punk Italian barbarian on Join the Party.

Moiya 41:16

I always want to hear that.

Julia 41:18

You can follow me on twitter @JuliaSchifini, it is my name. You could probably find it in the show notes of this episode. And you can check out my website which is also I have a kind of like, mini exclusive podcast about fake birdwatching. If that's something that interests you. It's like a very meditative, funny, weird experience. And I enjoy making it. It's called Who Watches the Birdwatcher?

Moiya 41:44

Of course it is. Yeah, all of those links will be down in the show notes as well as a bookshop link to The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea because you should support indie booksellers.

Julia 41:54

You absolutely should.

Moiya 41:54

Yeah. All right. Well, thanks again. That's a wrap. Thanks so much to Julia Schifini for chatting with me about this beautiful book. And thank you for listening. And also thanks to Maggie Tokuda-Hall for creating this amazing world. This is usually the time when I would give you a prompt to jumpstart a creative project and then ask you to share your work with me. Well, someone actually did that! Jade Wintergames wrote a short story set on the world of scarified rodents from Episode Two. So instead of giving you a prompt, I'll read a segment from the story.

"Upwards" by Jade Winter Games. Rragharr crawled onto the small vent leading to the Surface, six pairs of claws clinging to steep rock and making slow progress Upwards. She was not scared, unlike her sisters. Every cycle, after finishing her job rotation at the Village, each Villager would get a resting rotation, and she was allowed to do whatever she wanted with her time for a period equivalent to the time she had spent working. Some of her sisters would go down to the fungal forests, and would commune with the Great Mothers of the past. Others would spend their time getting beads inserted under their skin or onto their claws to produce beautiful, soft patterns. A few dedicated their spare time to the arts, making perfumes and patchwork and creating new instruments and harmonies. None would have approved of Rragharr’s interests. The Great Mother was the only one who knew where Rragharr went during her rest, actually. She thought it was curious and definitely broke many of the Village’s rules, but it wasn’t ultimately harmful, so she would give Rragharr a pass, as long as she left the Village unseen and kept her actions secret. More importantly, the Great Mother would also give her a set of steel claw-knives to stay safe, as the Surface had scary creatures, and Rragharr was too weak to even pass the Village’s licensing test to go Upwards. And so Rragharr found herself here in the most inconvenient of vents Upwards, holding on for dear life. She could feel the cold air biting at her face, but kept pushing, glad that she had bundled up in enough fiber and patchwork to make her twice her usual size. As she reached the exit, the light hit her eye-spot, blinding her for a second as her brain struggled to readjust and her nerves refocused. She put on her goggle and pushed forward. No matter how many times she did this, it never got easier.

To read the rest had to I'll also include a link below. You can follow Jade on Instagram @j.wintergames. And if you feel inspired to create your own Exolore art, share it on Twitter or Instagram and tag @ExolorePod or you can send it to the email If you want to support my worldbuilding work, there are a few ways you can do it. The first way is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free and it really does make a difference. Second, you can support me on Patreon. Your monthly support would help me do things like pay my guests and hire an editor which would really be awesome because doing all of this on my own is hard. So please head on over to, if you're able. Finally, if you want to learn how to build your own worlds for your own projects, check out my class with Atlas Obscura. Over eight weeks, I'll introduce you to facts based world building and the different world truths you need to know to make yours realistic. The link to sign up is in the description below. If you like this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show. That way you can catch me next time on another world.

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