Set to release in North America on June 2, 2020, A Song Below Water is Bethany C. Morrow’s newest YA Fantasy novel. A Song Below Water promises to be a story for today’s young readers – a captivating modern fantasy about black mermaids, friendship, and self-discovery set against the challenges of today’s racism and sexism.
DISCLAIMER: Thank-you to Raincoast Books for providing me with an Advance Readers’ Edition of A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, in exchange for an honest review.
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.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow will undoubtedly hook readers with its fresh, unique, and interesting premise – a young, black siren living a hidden life in modern (yet magical) Portland, where her kind is prosecuted out of fear. Add that to a focus on sisterly love and self-discovery, and readers will definitely be intrigued. Unfortunately, a poorly paced plot, not enough time with the individual characters, and a lack of world-building will leave readers wanting more.
The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Tavia and her sort-of-adopted sister, Effie. While this, as alternating perspectives are wont to do, offers perspective into both sisters’ experiences, it will also likely result in the reader finding it difficult to truly connect with either character. This is because both Tavia and Effie’s plot lines feel rushed (at best), and in a novel of this length, the constant back and forth wasn’t just off-putting, it was sometimes just downright confusing.
Moreover, these alternating perspectives resulted in a plot that seriously struggled with pacing problems. To be fair, the opening of A Song Below Water did a good job setting the stage and hooking the reader, introducing them to an intriguing fantasy universe set in our own, albeit more magical, world. However, from there, problems quickly arise in the plotting of the story, as the middle become quite murky, with no clear direction or plot progression, leaving the reader wondering where, exactly, Morrow is going with the story. Then, as the story builds up to the grand finale, it simply… doesn’t. Meaning, everything happens all at once, with little to no true exposition, instead just jumping from event to event at breakneck speed, then wrapping up so quickly that readers may be left with whiplash.
Finally, as a reader, I truly did find the world-building to be lacking. Information regarding this quasi-fantasy world was being informally/implicitly shared through character conversations and thoughts, but this method left gaping holes in the reader’s knowledge of the world, and thus made it difficult to navigate some conversations/scenes for which the reader simply did not have enough knowledge yet. More than once, I found myself googling terms, only to find that the typical interpretation of said term was (likely) wildly different than the interpretation presented in A Song Below Water. Add this lack of information to the spotter introduction of new fantasy creatures, lore, and character history going on throughout the whole book, and I don’t doubt that readers will turn the final page of this one wondering what, exactly, was going on.
Overall, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow is a refreshingly original novel with plenty of potential, but simply falls short due to a poorly plotted story, one-dimensional characters, and a general lack of meaningful world-building (2/5).