Published by Tor Books on June 2nd 2020
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Young Adult
Format: audio, eARC
Source: From the publisher, Libro.FM
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. Nevermind 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.
I knew as soon as I read the blurb that I wanted to read A Song Below Water, but I foolishly didn’t pre-order and then struggled to get hold of a copy, so I was thrilled to get an audio ARC via Libro.fm. I can honestly say that it is one of the most important and brilliantly original novels I think I’ve ever read – but also that it was a strange story, and not at all what I expected.
The story splits between Effie and Tavia – sisters who are going through a whole host of complicated things. Tavia is a siren, able to use her voice to manipulate humans. Her family have always worked to protect her secret, and she doesn’t use her voice, but the news is full of sirens right now. Rhoda Taylor, a black woman, was killed by her boyfriend, and no one was really paying much attention to the story, until a rumour gets out that Rhoda might have been a siren, and suddenly everyone’s considering whether that means her killer needs justice. Now the whole world seems to have an opinion on sirens, and Tavia has to bite her lip and hold her tongue, knowing that now, more than ever, it would be dangerous to expose herself.
Effie, Tavia’s adopted sister, is infamous for an incident that happened in her childhood, but all she wants is to be normal, and not to be noticed. She worries that her notoriety and her eczema make her stand out, and she hides behind her hair and her sister most of the time. The one place she feels confident is at the Renaissance Faire, where she isn’t Effie, she’s Euphemia the Mer. Now she’s beginning to wonder if her feelings for her on-stage partner are entirely make-believe.
I loved the premise – that all sirens are Black women, but not all Black women are sirens, so the girls are facing prejudice on both fronts. The more contemporary elements: the girls’ YouTube habits, their relationship with each other, the BLM protests, the scene with a police officer and their navigation of relationships all really worked for me. The racism the girls experience will make your heart physically ache. It’s an absolutely brilliant book in terms of forcing you to think about biases you may not know you have, experiences Black people go through that you’ve probably never even considered, even if it’s a ‘simple’ thing like learning about hair from magazine articles designed for white women. If you want to add some fiction to your anti-racism reading list, I would 100% put this on there. It was a particularly powerful read for me, having been preceded by Stamped and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and read in the middle of the BLM protests of June 2020. This might be a blend of fantasy and reality, but the racism and prejudice are absolutely still present in the real world today.
The fantasy elements and the fact that this is a Portland with Gargoyles, sprites and sirens, were absolutely awesome too, and yet somehow, I felt like they didn’t blend quite as much as I wanted them to. I feel like the novel had a divide down the middle, not between the two sisters, but between the fantasy elements of the story and the real world elements. One thing that really threw me was Effie’s Ren Faire obsession, and the way it felt like she couldn’t distinguish between what was real and what was acting, so I couldn’t understand the motivation for some of her actions, particularly in the first half of the book.
Despite my issues with the book, I still very much enjoyed it, and I would definitely recommend it. It works well as an audiobook, as the girls are voiced by different women, which makes it easier to keep track of their separate story lines, particularly at the beginning whilst you’re getting to know the characters. It’s a completely original premise, with plenty to make you think, and it’s incredibly timely right now.
Buy it? This is one I’d definitely buy to add to my bookshelves.
In a nutshell: A Song Below Water blends real world issues with magical elements to create a timely, emotive, unique read I’ll be recommending regularly