Representation: Black MCs, oppressed supernatural minorities
on 2nd June 2020
Genres: Urban Fantasy
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.
This was my read for the Justice square of the TarotBLM Reading Bingo!
I turned the final page of this book and was left with the feeling that I needed to reread it immediately. Because I think the reason this didn’t wow me might well have been that I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it.
I wanted to love it, and I didn’t, and I feel guilty for that in a way I usually don’t. Generally, if a book and I don’t mesh, I move on. That’s just how it works sometimes; no harm, no foul. But A Song Below Water feels like it should be so impressive and so powerful that my feelings of ‘meh’ feel like a personal failure.
I’m not sure why.
Tavia and Effie are best friends and sisters; though not related by blood, Effie has been living with Tavia’s family since her mom died. The two of them are very normal teenage girls; Tavia loves watching hair-styling videos and Effie lives for the yearly Renfaire, when she gets to LARP as a mermaid. They have crushes and favourite classes and family drama.
But Tavia is also a siren, and everyone around her plays a vital role in protecting her secret – because sirens are feared and hated for the power of their voices, and it would be a disaster for Tav to be outed. But when push comes to shove, she has to decide whether it’s better to stay hidden, and relatively safe – or use her voice to make a difference.
This is a book about being Black, ultimately. About what it’s like to be surrounded by white people who, at best, are well-intentioned idiots, and at worse are out to hurt you just because your skin is a different colour than theirs. I’m not sure I could point to any of the side-characters and call them real allies, not when they see protesting police brutality as a cross between a holiday and an extra-credit class assignment. There’s the ‘network’ within the Black community who work to hide and protect sirens, but their support seems pretty minimal to me, mostly acting as cover in choir so Tav has a chance to let her voice loose a little. Tav and Effie have each other’s backs to the very end, but other than that, they feel alone even among other Black girls, or their families, who are…not ideal when it comes to supporting them.
A Song Below Water is more-or-less a – not quite a coming-of-age story, but a coming-into-your-power story. Told in first-person, in chapters alternating between Tavia’s pov and Effie’s, it’s about both girls outgrowing the niches their guardians – and society – have pushed them into. It’s about, not out-growing your fears, but overcoming them, acting despite them. Facing off against a system that’s so much bigger than you are, and being scared, and doing it anyway. It’s about family secrets and hidden heritages and how to be normal when white is the supposed default.
And I guess I think this would have been a better book if it hadn’t tried to be a fantasy. Maybe I’m missing some metaphor or deeper meaning, but the fantastical elements felt mostly like window-dressing to me, decoration rather than something integral. Tavia’s fear of being discovered to be a siren is very real and powerful, and maybe Morrow thought it would be easier for not-Black readers to understand living with that fear – the fear of being outed as something supernatural – rather than living with the fear of being Black in a white-ruled society? The scene when Tavia is pulled over by police despite having done nothing wrong – she’s pulled over because she’s Black, because this is what the police do in our society, and that’s made clear, but the focus of the scene becomes her siren-ness instead.
I guess that’s it, really: Tavia’s fear of being outed, her wish to not be a siren at all – they feel like stand-ins for her Blackness. And the sad thing is that maybe there are readers who need that stand-in. But honestly, that kind of reader isn’t going to appreciate this book properly anyway. Because it’s a lot more about systemic racism than it is about sirens.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would; because the magical aspects felt underdeveloped, and A Song Below Water is much more of an issues book. It felt like a watered-down version of The Hate U Give, with glitter sprinkled on top in the form of sirens and sprites and gargoyles. Like it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be – fantasy or contemporary, issues or adventure; and while there are a lot of books that manage to wed those things together into excellent stories, I don’t think this is one of them.
But this is one of those cases where I don’t feel confident that I’m right and the rest of the world is wrong. Maybe the twists felt predictable because I know a lot more mythology than the average reader, and was able to put the clues together. Maybe I wasn’t in the right headspace to properly appreciate it all. Maybe if I reread this in a few months, I’ll find out I love it as much as everyone else does.
But for now, I’ve got to count it as a disappointment.