What’s this? A THIRD book review in the same month? Trust me, I’m as shocked as you are.
My mum spotted this book in the Audible shop when they were doing a BOGO promo in January. Knowing my love of mermaids and wanting to get more diversity in my TBR pile, she was like, ‘hey look- Black mermaids,’ and I was like, ‘fair enough.’ So I got this and a book on the Canonical Five Jack the Ripper victims (and also a book on why fairytales are still relevant and A Hero With a Thousands Faces, because I feel that Joseph Campbell should be required reading…and I haven’t read it. So *shrug*)
A Song Below Water focuses on two girls, Tavia and Effie, who live together with Tavia’s family, but aren’t related. They’re super close best friends and refer to each other as sisters.
One thing I love is that Morrow doesn’t fall into the lazy teen drama trap of having them have a big blow up and being separated for half the book until their big cathartic make-up at the end. I hate that shit, it’s so boring. Instead, they have misunderstandings, disagreements, someone puts their foot in their mouth, etc etc, normal friend stuff, but they get past it. That’s not really a spoiler, it’s just a nice thing.
Tavia is a Siren, which is an exclusively Black female demographic, and highly mistrusted. Most sirens are either in hiding, wear siren call cancelling collars, or are part of a network dedicated to keeping their secret. *At this point, let me apologize for any misspellings or bad capitalization- I listened to the audiobook, I didn’t read it in print. * Tavia uses sign language to communicate when her siren voice wants to come out, and sings as part of a choir at school as an outlet. The other girls in the choir know she’s a siren and cover for her.
Effie is an orphan who was sent by her adoptive grandmother to live with Tavia and her parents. She and her mother used to perform at the Renaissance Faire as mermaids, and since her mother’s passing, she has inherited the mantle of resident mer, in addition to the romantic storyline she has with the blacksmith’s son. It’s very cute. She struggles with extremely dry, flaky skin, and finds her greatest peace in the community pool, where she trains for the fair.
I would compare them VERY loosely to to Zelie and Amari from Children of Blood and Bone…
…the review of which I just realised that I hadn’t published, whoops. So, that’s up now. Yay, bonus review! It was a tough book for me to get through, so I was waiting until I had done it right.
ANYWAY, Tavia and Zelie both have have race-specific powers that they have to hide for fear of persecution, and Effie and Amari live with the privilege of not having that issue but still considering themselves allies. Tavia is also described as dark-skinned, while Effie is lighter, though colourism isn’t as big a theme here as it is in CoBaB. There are other similarities between Effie and Amari, but *spoilers*.
The primary difference in their relationship is that where Zelie was openly and vehemently opposed to Amari, Tavia and Effie have no animosity between them at all. There’s no resentment of privilege or misplaced jealousy over powers. They understand each other’s struggle and provide unconditional support.
I don’t like to touch in plot too much in these reviews because I don’t want to give things away. This story was just really well done. The highs and lows are gently devastating- they make you feel deeply, but not in the way that you have put the book down and take a break for a week, lol. You feel dread, outrage, hope, disappointment, confusion, and understanding in the right moments.
There’s a twist about 75% through and I. Did. Not. See. It. Coming. But when it did, I was like, ‘OF COURSE. YOU FOOL. ALL THE SIGNS WERE THERE.’ I think I literally put my hand over my mouth, I was that shocked. It was really well done. Set up flawlessly and I had no inkling.
This book is…mostly (again, spoilers) set in Portland, Oregon, in 2019-2020 (minus the pandemic. We can forgive her not predicting that when she drafted the book probably 2-3 years ago). BLM protests are in full swing, and some pretty believable shit happens at and around them. There are also mentions of YouTube and Twitter, so this is clearly a version of our world, but plus sirens, sprites, a mythical-but-beloved race called Eloko, a gargoyle that lives on Tavia’s roof, and …others. I don’t know much about Portland, so I can’t say if she nailed it, but I know RenFaire, and she made me big-time homesick.
Like Children of Blood and Bone, A Song from Below Water doesn’t shy from depicting the Black Experience in America with eyes open. Certain scenes that I won’t describe because of spoilers and also in an effort not to indulge in violence against people of colour, feel very reminiscent of real life events that Morrow couldn’t have known about when she was writing. Sadly, the events she wrote about feel like they could have happened yesterday or will happen tomorrow. It’s all too familiar and believable.
You can feel Tavia’s panic every time her throat gets hot, you feel the fear when her favourite YouTuber makes her announcement, and when Effie’s truth is revealed, the excitement of the moment is overshadowed by the unspoken dread of, ‘oh god, how is this going to go bad for her?’ I mentioned that to a Black friend and she said, ‘that’s literally what it’s like to be Black. Full stop.’
It’s not as intense and dark as CoBaB, but it’s a difference genre. Tomi Adeyemi was full of justified rage when she wrote her book, and it shows. Morrow feels more tired, more like she’s trying to rephrase the issue and beg people to finally, finally get it. If ‘Black live matter’ isn’t enough, maybe people will catch on if ‘mermaid lives matter.’ She’s framing the Black community as a fairytale race, removing the ingrained bias, much like Shrek did, while at the same time addressing the misogyny and sidelining of Black women. Sirens, after all, are only Black women, and carry the blame for why the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t as successful as it could have been.
Morrow tells her story in a languid, dreamy style, focusing on sensory details and microexpressions, more than big flashy gestures. She lives in the characters’ emotions, even when outside their PoV. Speaking as a member of the mermaid community, it’s a very mermy vibe, lol. The only thing that twinges a bit is the references to things like YouTube and Twitter, because they can become dated very quickly. However, contemporary references are a hallmark of Young Adult fiction, and in conjunct with BLM protests, ther firmly root the story in this time and place, and I think that gives the book an overall relevance. Perhaps it won’t be timeless, but it is timely.
I really enjoyed this book. It was cute in places, difficult in others, but the characters felt real, the situations likely in a fairytale way. At first, I was tired of the Naema storyline, but I just found out that the sequel is her redemption arc and I am SO READY to learn some Eloko lore. So, as soon as I have my pennies together, I’m pre-ordering that thing. Y’all know my track record with sequels, but I feel this one. Plus it’s in the southwest, which isn’t my neighborhood, but close.