A Song Below Water – review

Author: Bethany C. Morrow
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Genre: young adult, fantasy
My rating: 3.5/5 stars

First, I want to make something abundantly clear: this is a tremendously important book. It deals with lots of major issues that the Black community is currently facing, and has been facing for a long time, and it uses a highly unique premise (some very literal Black Girl Magic) to convey those ideas. I feel like I need to stress that part because this was one of those books that I loved in theory, just not in execution. I don’t want this review to be taken as, “This book isn’t important.” I think it is a book that is very, very much worth reading. However, it would be disingenuous for me to rate it higher, because it faltered in its actual writing, on technical elements like worldbuilding and pacing.

(This is why, as you may have noticed, I didn’t put this review on my blog tour post for this book a few weeks ago. I really do want it to succeed, and I still want to promote it as strongly as possible!)

So, quick summary:

In an alternate version of America, humans live side by side with mythical creatures, including sprites (invisible mischief-makers), elokos (tbh still not quite sure what they are, but more on that later), and most importantly, sirens (Black women with the ability to use magical calls on people with their voices). Sirens are strongly condemned by society, from a combination of fear, racism, and misogyny, and so Tavia, a high school girl, keeps the fact that she is a siren secret from most people. Her best friend and adoptive sister, Effie, plays a mermaid at the Renaissance faire, but lately has been struggling with constantly shedding dry skin, mysterious blackouts, and guilt over a childhood accident she may have caused.

When a murdered woman is revealed to have possibly been a siren, and shortly thereafter Tavia’s favorite YouTube star also comes out as a siren, Tavia and Effie both find their lives taking a chaotic turn. Suddenly, the gargoyle that has taken up residence on their roof is actually talking to them. Public outcry and Black Lives Matter protests are escalating. Effie wants to find who her father is, and Tavia doesn’t know how much longer she can keep her siren call a secret. Amidst all this, the two strive to support each other and their communities…while also, of course, dealing with the regular pressures of high school, dating, and family drama.

So, we’ll start with the good. This is an amazing premise for a book. I loved the concept, the magic of the sirens, and the way it seamlessly interwove major social issues, minor personal problems, and the way both of those are amplified by magic. The juxtaposition of the fake magic in a Renaissance faire and the real magic present in their world was an interesting duality to observe, and I think that in that regard, Morrow more than succeeded. In a particularly poignant moment, we even learn that the hatred directed toward sirens once led an eleven-year-old Tavia to try and destroy her vocal cords so she couldn’t sing or speak anymore–and if that isn’t a striking depiction of the way Black voices, especially Black women, are often coerced into believing they must be silent, I don’t know what is.

The problem was, it was sometimes hard to appreciate how clever this design was, because the writing itself did not do enough to flesh out this world. Many elements of the worldbuilding were very confusingly executed. I’ve read the entire book, and I still don’t quite understand what elokos are, even though they’re a prominent type of magical person mentioned throughout the book. They have a magical charm and can put a trill in their voice that makes people like them or something, I guess? And somehow their voices can mask siren calls? Nothing was really explained about them, which made it hard to tell what was going on at times. Similarly, very little was established early on about things like the role of sirens, the extent of their abilities, or why Tavia was so determined to find her siren grandmother “in the water.” It felt like this book was a continuation of something and the readers were expected to know these things already–which, of course, is not the case.

Another positive element: Tavia and Effie were both very likable and believable protagonists, with emotions that ran deep and personalities that made them easy to root for. The strong sisterhood between them was enjoyable to read (what can I say, I’m a sucker for wholesome sister relationships), and I loved their constant loyalty to each other and refusal to back down from any challenge. Honestly, in addition to simply enjoying the premise, I’m pretty sure that my investment in these two as characters is a large part of what kept me reading.

Again, though, we had a case where the writing undermined some of this. The book was told in two perspectives, alternating between Tavia and Effie, but the written voices of the two were virtually indistinguishable, to the point that sometimes I would forget which girl’s point of view I was reading from until I encountered a plot detail that made it clear. The two girls have very different personalities and goals, and yet those didn’t manifest in their narration at all. That’s not to say that the voice wasn’t good–I enjoyed the writing style in general, but it didn’t make sense that it didn’t change at all when perspective changed.

And then there is the final issue this book faced: pacing. For a book that is under 300 pages, it took me a weirdly long time to finish. It was like it skipped out on providing some necessary background but then used that space to dwell on things that didn’t move the plot forward, instead stalling and meandering, especially for the first 50% or so. As the book got closer to its conclusion, it picked up as it really started to lean into the magic and the plot, but it took too long to get there. Though the slower parts did work hard on the thematic messages of the book, I think those themes could have hit a lot harder if they were just played up more in the action rather than stretched out in between, if that makes sense.

As a final note: for OwnVoices readers, this book may resonate more in a way that compensates for its technical shortcomings, and I highly suggest looking at OwnVoices reviews like Leelynn’s for more on that front. (Side note: Leelynn is freaking awesome and you should definitely check out more on her blog!) Similarly, for a reader who is going into this book with the intention of just gaining a deeper understanding of or a new perspective on themes like misogynoir, this book will be perfect. The lack of cohesion is the part that dampened the enjoyment for me–but don’t take this as meaning you should not read it. By all means, do give this one a try–you’ll be supporting a Black woman author and simultaneously experiencing a very unique story.

Thank you to Tor Teen for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!


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