A complex read with real eye-opening teenager voices.
Many thanks to NetGalley and TorTeen for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Release date: June 2 2020!
Expected rating: ★★★★✰
Actual rating: ★★★★✰
Genre: YA | Fantasy | Contemporary
Read if you… are looking for #ownvoice Black girls representation | are fascinated by mythical creatures | love stories with strong sisterhood | want a complex YA novel that deals with social justice topics
Why I read it: The cover is gorgeous, as you can see, but for once it wasn’t my main reason to get the book. I’d heard about ASBW and the topics it deals with (as well as the cool mythological aspects) since February and I’d hoped to get it for my birthday. Then I saw it on NetGalley. And I requested. And I got it. And I cried.
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.
misogynoir, bullying, physical assault, repression, mentioned death of mother, mentioned murder of Black people, tear-gas attack, kidnapping, human petrification, snakes, other possible triggers
First-person POV. The two main characters are the narrators.
A Song Below Water is the story of Effie and Tavia, two best friends-slash-something-like-adoptive-sisters who live in a version of Portland, Oregon, where sirens, elokos, gargoyles, and other mythical creatures are a thing. Actually, Tavia is a siren. And Effie is something special, she just doesn’t know what.
The two girls have to face struggles common in our non-magical society (misogynoir, unrequited love, unsupportive family, fear of being exposed, identity issues) as well as ones rooting in the supernatural (sirens are persecuted, people are getting turned to stone statues).
What seemed like private struggles at first escalate to larger-scale problems that get completely out of hand, and both girl have to make hard choices, decide what they stand for, and if and how to come out as themselves.
The story made me come back. It kept me reading until late at night. Even if it is complicated and feels like the literary version of an octopus (subplots going all the ways and just being attached to each other by the resolution), it was a compelling read.
Before I say what’s in my heart, let me talk about the actual plot execution of the story.
The reader is a bit in the dark in the beginning. We’re thrown into the story with no background knowledge and no understanding of the fantasy elements, which raises a lot of question marks and made me squint and reread passages many times.
It’s not too hard to eventually become used to the slow pace of the first half if you like the complexity of the story, the Black representation, and the fantasy elements, but it’s much better when the rhythm picks up (near the third quarter of the book). Things start happening more quickly and there is less internal monologue from the narrators.
To put it clearly, the plot happens to the characters in the first half, while after that, it’s the characters who impact the plot.
Ah, and let me be a bitter spinster grinch for a sec’: Something bugged me terribly: holes were left in the storyline. Details went unexplained (minor spoiler: who did what Elrich said he hadn’t done? It wasn’t explicitly said, so my conjectures could be false) and events didn’t have a full resolution (minor spoiler: what happened to Camila? Where had Isabella been? And why?)
However: The struggles the girls face obviously aren’t some petty tantrums or overly-impossible, world-menacing tragedy (the ones I’ve found most often in contemporary YA books) and THAT is great. It’ real stuff. Something readers can relate to on a deep level.
I cannot give a Black #ownvoice point of view and, as someone who lives outside the US (and in a rural place, gee), I had never realized. The misogynoir and overall racism issues hit me square in the nose. It’s that kind of injustices you wish were just magnified for the sake of the novel but you know are real. And it’s sad in a way that can’t be written.
Bethany C. Morrow deals with the heavy topics in a way that makes them tangible. I wanted to hug the girls so bad. I wanted to whisk them away from Portland and all the darkness of their lives.
I think a huge part of why I loved this book is because it made me see in a much clearer light a struggle I will never be able to understand because I was born lucky and it made me fully comprehend how disgusting and unfair that is.
I’m glad I read this book at this precise moment.
I think I prefer Effie over Tavia, but I couldn’t say why. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I love the metaphor behind her character development: her not knowing who or what she is… It’s a beautiful and creative way to illustrate identity issues that surface during the coming-of-age period.
Effie and Tavia’s sister bond is amazing. I’d read the book again only to appreciate how much the girls take care of each other. The fact that they have their own special way to communicate makes the sisterhood stronger; the fact that they still hide secrets from each other makes it real.
I have to admit that, once, I stopped reading mid-chapter and when I came back I couldn’t remember who was narrating. Both narrators’ voices are very similar.
The adults are the worse. All of them. There isn’t one to save the other (well, perhaps Mrs. Gennie and Paw Paw, but that’s about it). I think it’s sad that there isn’t a helpful adult figure (unless you count Gramma, but… It’s not like she was really around). It’s an aspect of YA books that makes teens think they face the whole world completely on their own, and it doesn’t have to be like that.
There’s little actual backstory to the worldbuilding. Since the story evolves in a contemporary setting, I guess not a lot of emphasis was given on thinking much about the fantasy elements and the logic behind them. They were not incoherent, but I would have loved to see something more developed.
You have to stick around for a long time for stuff to start making sense. The mythological concepts are not clear at first, even more so because the author spun them her own way.
As for the contemporary part of the setting… The inclusion of a fair + cosplay + fanfiction is just amazing. It’s so realistic to read about teens reading fanfiction, even if it’s only briefly mentioned. And what about Tavia’s role model being a YouTuber? That’s part of the little details that made me appreciate the book a ton.
The writing felt overly complex at times, but the narrators’ voice were indeed teenager voices, kudos for that. Given the serious topics discussed in the book, one could believe that Effie and Tavia would come across as adults rather than 16-/17-year-olds, but that was not the case.
There was humor to lighten the heavy topics and the complexity of the story, which made it all even more worth it.
However, many concepts (or even just parts of dialogues) were left underdeveloped, supposedly for the reader to deduce their meaning. I don’t know if I’m particularly stupid or lack intuition, but I didn’t always pick up on those.
I didn’t find any special words of which I wanted to take note of, but the prose was still good.
This is not a book to read on lazy Sunday afternoon just to feel sweet words and breeze past the characters. You have to actively read it. Please do.
Have you read A Song Below Water? Is it on your TBR? What are some of your favorite #ownvoice books? What YA books that deal with topics of social injustice do you highly recommend?