“We should all speak like sirens. Use our voices to make a difference, because all of them matter.”
Tavia is already at odds with the world, forced to keep her siren identity under wraps in a society that wants to keep her kind under lock and key. Never mind she’s also stuck in Portland, Oregon, a city with only a handful of black folk and even fewer of those with magical powers. At least she has her bestie Effie by her side as they tackle high school drama, family secrets, and unrequited crushes.
But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation; the girls’ favorite Internet fashion icon reveals she’s also a siren, and the news rips through their community. Tensions escalate when Effie starts being haunted by demons from her past, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice during a police stop. No secret seems safe anymore—soon Portland won’t be either.
When I heard of this book and saw the cover I was sold. Mermaids? Check. Sisters/Female friendship? Check. Black girl magic? Check.
This book promised a lot and I was here for it. It felt like the perfect time for this book, in the wake of the ever-growing Black Lives Matter movement. Using the metaphor of the sirens’ oppression to hold a mirror up to the current political and cultural climate.
But the metaphor was layered on top of the actual thing it was trying to explore. And sometimes it was to the detriment of the actual plot.
I wanted to like this book. And I believe I would’ve fully if it had followed up on all its promise. There was so much potential that felt a little wasted at times. There were plenty of moments that felt truly inspired and if the whole book was like that it wouldn’t be a problem. But, unfortunately, the plot often skidded to a halt to go back to thematic musings by the main characters. Obviously, as a white woman, I can’t make judgments. These themes are important, but I often felt like there needed to be less philosophical/political conversations and more magic.
The themes are clear. They’re there in full view, though it seemed we needed to be reminded over and over again. I’m fine reading a political commentary, but when it’s disguised as a fantasy, it turns me off a little. Just be honest with me about what this book really is.
But, the story is chock-full of so many wonderful ideas and premises that I wish had been explored further. Especially the world building.
The magical realism in this book is to titillating. The readers are given this fantastical but fully realistic world that’s packed with mythology and magical creatures. But this amazing world is never fully realized within the confines of this book. A couple hundred pages more to include proper exploration would’ve been the trick, because I just wanted to know more.
Much of my confusion and frustration with this book might have been mitigated by some further world building. I didn’t know where the line was drawn; what was possible and what wasn’t; what mythical creatures were real and which weren’t.
And it’s kind of a pivotal part of the book, but the lack of explaining meant I was more befuddled by what was happened than enthralled.
But I loved Effie and Tavia’s relationship. I’m all about strong female friendships and found families (see: my own writing), and this was my favourite part of the book. All my favourite scenes were them together being each other’s rocks.
But their POV voices lacked distinction and sometimes it felt like they could’ve been the same person.
I liked Effie’s arc a little bit more—dunno why, just did—but I felt like she was under-utilized for the first part of the novel. *Minor Spoilers* I think it was because I was confused half the time as to whether or not she really was a mermaid or if the Ren Faire was more than it was. But this goes back to the lack of proper explaining of the mythology of the world in which Effie and Tavia live. Of course, all is revealed at the end, but I shouldn’t be so confused for 90% of the book.
For me, I wanted Effie to be more active in her own journey. I wanted her to go looking for answers instead of just saying “ah, oh no!” every time something weird happened to her.
The other characters in the book weren’t nearly as well fleshed out. They were interesting, but often were cardboard cutouts to populate the background and worse, sometimes felt like they were only there to be props for the social commentary.
Especially near the end, at the climax. I couldn’t understand the motivations of some of the background characters because they hadn’t been fleshed out properly. It seemed like, “Oh she’s just a hateful and vindictive person because that’s who she is.” And while that’s valid, it wasn’t totally satisfying.
However, I really liked the ending… like the last 20 pages were fantastic. And it finally gave the satisfaction the whole novel had promised. I just wished it could’ve come a little sooner. I don’t know. Maybe.
All in all I did like the book, but I felt like it promised so much without delivering until the very end. There’s a difference between tantalizing and suspenseful and just frustrating. A Song Below Water walked the line between them and would often flip flop. As I said before, I think a lot of the problems I had with it would’ve been solved with letting the reader have more than the sliver of world mythos we experienced. It wouldn’t have left me so frustrated.
But if you’re looking for a book with Black girls being amazing, important social commentary, and a sprinkle-winkle of magic, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.