Tavia is a siren. This fact is enough trouble to her that she’s trying to contact the spirit of her grandmother (who was also a siren) to learn whether there’s any way to rid herself of the power.
Her best friend/adopted sister Effie isn’t really a mermaid; she just plays one at the Renaissance Faire. She’s a totally normal human — or so she thinks.
A Song Below Water (2020), by Bethany C. Morrow, is set in what is essentially our world in the present day, except that several types of magical beings are known to exist. Elokos are prestigious, admired. Sprites are annoying, invisible tricksters who play pranks on children. Sirens are feared and despised. Every known siren in recent years has been a black woman, which has led to a stigma being attached to that identity.
As the novel begins, Tavia is following a murder trial in which the victim is rumored to be a siren. And if she was, according to the court of public opinion, then she probably deserved it. It’s not hard to see a parallel between this and the phenomenon that happens in our world whenever a black person is killed and people start combing through the person’s life, and sometimes even their parents’ lives, for any hint that the deceased wasn’t an “angel.”
This intensifies Tavia’s desire to suppress her power, and for that she’ll need to solve the riddle of how to reach her grandmother. Effie has her own supernatural mystery to untangle; she’ll need to make the connection between a traumatic event in her childhood and some weird things that are happening to her now, or else risk harming people. (The genre-savvy will probably be able to figure out what’s up with her.) Through it all, the bond between the girls sustains them. Morrow’s portrayal of female friendship is lovely, and rarer than it should be. And I love that the girls get to save the day by being clever and compassionate.
Meanwhile, the girls also have to deal with schoolwork, racism, protests, mean girls, flaky boys, junior prom, and adults who mean well but put their kids at a disadvantage by not telling them enough. There’s a lot going on here, but it works.
The ending is written kind of sparely. I found myself with lingering questions about how the world outside Effie and Tavia was reacting to the events that had just occurred. I can see some very good storytelling reasons to not belabor this stuff; the novel would run the risk of dragging on too long after the climax, which is itself pretty complex. And we do get some hints of what’s going on. But maybe a little more exposition might have been a good thing.
Overall, though, this is a timely, engaging tale that teens and adults will enjoy. It appears to be a standalone, though there’s room for more stories in this world. And if Morrow decides to write them, sign me up!
Kelly is absolutely right: A Song Below Water is timely, well-written, and gripping. (I finished this book in a day, which I was not expecting, but it’s really hard to put down once the narrative gets going.) The ending is a little too neatly and quickly tied up, without the same complexity and focus on consequences as the preceding plot/character exposition, but still, it’s a really good read, and I will definitely seek out more of Bethany C. Morrow’s work in the future.