I had the audiobook for A Song Below Water on hold for months with the library, and then the physical book… and it only arrived last week or so (they had a copy but libraries were closed for the whole of winter, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who wanted it!) So to say this was highly anticipated for me is a bit of an understatement.
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.
The (spoilery) Review
I don’t really know how to feel about this book. It was so highly anticipated for me, and I guess it fell a bit short. First, between the title and the cover, I think I expected sirens to be like mermaids, and in some ways this was very similar, and in others very much not. It was a bit light on the mermaid, for me, I think (which is a me issue more than a book issue, I admit). I don’t know why, I also expected it to be queer, which it isn’t (also a me problem).
In some ways it did really deliver. The magical aspects of this world blend really well with the context of the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Sirens are only Black women, and so they’re a prime target for racism and prejudice. I found really interesting that Morrow has a support network in place for sirens like Tavia, but at the same time I kept thinking, this can’t possibly work, there has to be people who betray it. And clearly the author thought the same, so it was good to see that unfold.
I was really taken in by the mystery of Effie’s magical identity, who’s her father, what kind of creature is she, and all that. But, while I was not disappointed by the revelation, I was disappointed by what happens with it. Let’s just say there’s a lot of toxic, borderline (or not so borderline) abusive adults in this book, and I didn’t feel the narrative justice in that too many of them get a pass. Turning dozens of people into statues out of pettiness and manipulation should not, in fact, mean you get all that you want.
So on the one hand the civil rights, “freedom for sirens and Black people” part of the novel was really good, and on the other, the families’ arcs did not sit well with me. And there were a lot of petty highschool rivalries and weird crushes which… I don’t know. I’ve seen it done well, I’m actually reminded of Hani and Ishu as I write this– but in this case it did not work for me.
Overall I just have mixed feelings, I wanted this book to work for me, so much, and some aspects are really great. It definitely has something to say and delivers on that, but not so much on the rest, for me.And the prose did not really take me in either. I also did try the audiobook when I realised it was on Scribd, as well, but I wasn’t taken in any more than with the physical book. I’d say it’s still worth a read for the BLM aspect of it, but that’s it, for me.