Review: A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow

“I told you you’d be something wonderful.”

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Notice: I received a free eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for a review. I also buddy read this book with Juri from Tomes and Thoughts!

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.

I praise A Song Below Water for a selection of elements the story contained, so let’s talk about them one by one.

#1: Black representation in multiple contexts

The representation of black girls in this book was continuous, unapologetic, and presented in a variety of contexts. For instance, a lot of the rep in this book involves the trials and tribulations of caring for black natural hair, which was often humorous and uplifting. However, it doesn’t just stop there. Black representation also came in the form of police brutality of a black boy and a critical conversation about how black women and girls are often under-advocated for when tragedy strikes compared to black men and boys. This book is 100% timely with the contemporary black lives matter movement as it features the story of Rhonda Taylor, a black siren who was murdered and persecuted by the media in her death.

So…trigger warning for that.

#2: Centering black women in Lore/Mythology

This has got to be my favorite part of A Song Below Water. Black women and girls weren’t just included in the mythos aspect of the book, they were the face of it. In this book, sirens are historically known to be black women. For me as a black reader, that was really nice to see because I have had personal experience with people telling me that interest in such mythology is a “white person thing.” Slowly but surely, we are breaking down the idea that black people having genuine interests is not somehow us “trying to be white.”

#3: Complex family dynamics

This one is just kind of self-explanatory. Whenever I see non-traditional households in books, my heart sings. Living with extended family or not-family-that-feel-like-family is the reality of so many people around the world, yet the vast majority of fiction loves to stick to the classical two-biological-parent household. I personally grew up in an untraditional household and most of my friends in real life did too!

#4: The unique approach at fantasy/ realistic fiction

Disclaimer: I know that “realistic fiction” implies that the events of a book could genuinely happen in real life, and obviously, sirens, sprites, and gargoyle bodyguards don’t exist IRL. However, the blend of a real life setting (Portland, Oregon), with real life points of interest and societal/city norms, mixed with mythological creatures simply inhabiting that realistic setting was quite an interesting dynamic to navigate.

Although I do have intense criticism for this aspect of the book which I will discuss next, I do have to commend the bold approach of making this dual setting seem so normal that the reader wasn’t supposed to question it.

…Unless they did.

I have two major critiques for A Song Below Water. The first is how I felt that the world building and the introduction to the mythology of this book is utterly nonexistent. In the beginning, we are directly told that the setting is Portland, Oregon. However, the introduction to the mythical creatures that inhabit Portland as everyday Portlanders was so unexplained that it caught me completely off guard.

I went into this book expecting to learn about sirens because that’s what was blatantly obvious from the synopsis. And while the book did go in depth with the history and significance of sirens and their lore, the same energy was not given to the various other creatures. I went into this book knowing nothing about the mythology of sprites, gargoyles, etc, and I came out of this book knowing little-to-nothing about sprites, gargoyles, etc.

The unmatched energy to giving these mythical creatures background was very frustrating and made it hard for me to care about their complexities. It also made it hard for me to understand some of the significance of major plot points that dealt with conflict between creatures because of their lore.

Finally, the other point of critique I have for this book is how, overall, I felt as though this book felt very ambitious in how many things it was trying to achieve and with little structure to stand on. Don’t get me wrong—YES there are important conversations in this book. YES it is important to represent black girls and women as multifaceted and not just the tirelessly strong activist. Yes, I absolutely commend this book for the important conversations it holds.

But I felt overwhelmingly disappointed by the book’s execution and lack of smooth storytelling. A book can be really good in content but really bad in execution, and that’s exactly how I feel about A Song Below Water.

The reviews for this book have been quite polarizing, so how’d you feel about it? Let’s talk!

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