Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Microreview [Book]: A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

Secret supernatural abilities and misogynoir combine in this contemporary urban fantasy

Cover artist not credited in reveal
A Song Below Water feels like it sits somewhere between contemporary and urban fantasy YA: a story with significant, interesting supernatural elements that isn't so much interested in using them as a worldbuilding tool, but as an additional plot hook to talk about the challenges of teenhood, specifically for Black girls growing up in a white part of the USA. Its Morrow's second book, after the alt-historical meditation on personhood that was Mem, and its one I've been excited to read since learning of its existence a few months back.

In A Song Below Water, people with supernatural abilities are just part of the fabric of humanity, although many have to deal with stereotypes and myths around their powers which make it hard to be out about who they are. Tavia is from a group particularly affected by that: she's a Siren, able to use her voice to "call" in different ways. Sirens as a group have found themselves increasingly vilified, especially as the powers now only appear to manifest in Black women. The murder of a young woman whose trial ends up hinging on whether her boyfriend killed her because she was a siren drives home how precarious Tavia's existence is, and the web of lies and challenges she has to face every day to make it work. Tavia's closest friend and confidante is Effie, a girl who spends her summers working as a mermaid at a Ren Faire and who has been living with Tavia and her family since the death of her mother. Effie didn't believe she had any particular supernatural powers, but has been at the centre of a number of mysterious happenings, including having a group of her friends turned to stone by sprites when she was younger. Now she's trying to focus on her upcoming season as Euphemia the mer, while battling dry skin and strange blackouts and, of course, supporting her bestie.

From this set-up, we follow Tavia and Effie across a number of different threads. Tavia struggles to maintain secrecy and meet her father's particularly stringent expectations, while the murder trial - and the revelation that her favourite natural hair YouTuber is also a Siren - loom ever larger in the political landscape, as well as trying to maintain her chill around the Eloko girl now dating the feckless ex who ghosted her the previous summer. Effie, whose life at the Ren Faire becomes increasingly bananas the more we learn about it (there's a website dedicated entirely to fanfiction of her character and the other performers, which she regularly reads?), starts to show increasingly worrying powers and has to deal with separating out her real life from her fictional existence. What's more, both need to deal with the gargoyle that's taken up residence on their roof. Both girls' attempts to maintain normal teen existence get increasingly challenging as things escalate, and in the end it's Effie's story which drives the novel's tense showdown and conclusion.

Morrow's previous book, Mem, was set in an alternate Ontario with a black female protagonist and told a story in which racism (deliberately) played no role; A Song Below Water, on the other hand, puts misogynoir front and centre of all the challenges Tavia and Effie face. The backdrop for all of this is Portland, an ostensibly liberal but overwhelmingly white city, and Tavia and Effie's lives involve everything from frustrating microaggressions to wry cultural asides to the very real and persistent threats to their safety, wellbeing and self-fulfilment. While there's not a huge amount of lore or worldbuilding around the number of supernatural creatures who exist in this world, Morrow does include some other kids in Tavia and Effie's orbit: most are Eloko, a central African myth about a cannibalistic creature able to tempt humans with its bells. In A Song Below Water, the presence of a number of Eloko characters who are envied and adored by their peers and adults despite having such unpleasant myths attached to them underscores the hypocrisy with which Sirens like Tavia are treated, and makes it very clear that discrimination against them is an intersection of racial prejudice, and not just fear of magic being used as a stand-in for racial discrimination. Eloko, in contrast to Sirens, can be any race or gender, and one of the toughest betrayals that Tavia faces is the refusal of one of the Black girls in her support network, an Eloko, to help support her after her traffic stop.

With so many threads to follow, A Song Below Water feels a bit disjointed at times, as some plot elements get left behind and others become important beyond what felt signposted as the story reaches its conclusion. Because Morrow offered so many elements of supernaturally-tinged misogynoir in the novel, there's a bit of expectation management to be done in terms of what was simply there to properly tell the story of Tavia and Effie's life and challenges, and what is particularly relevant to the coming-of-age element to each girl's plot. It's Effie who gets the more overtly transformative ending, as the mystery of her dry skin and blackouts resolves in a reveal I didn't see coming but possibly should have. Tavia's ultimate growth is a bit more subtle, and it takes some reflection to really draw the lines between her traffic stop, her engagement with other sirens being demonised in the media, and where her life ends up. This makes the reading experience a bit strange, like the pieces don't quite add up into the narrative that they are supposed to, but all of the elements are strong individually, and the only genuinely frustrating note is the treatment of Tavia's relationship with her father, which isn't really addressed in terms of its toxicity and how it affects the girls.

If you enjoy both contemporary and fantasy YA, A Song Below Water has the best of both worlds in many ways: interesting supernatural happenings grounded in a deeply political tale of growing up Black and female in a white supremacist patriarchy. It's not quite the perfectly formed knockout that Morrow's previous book, Mem, was for me. However, its still an enjoyable and highly relevant read, and one I'd very much recommend checking out.

The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 A great pair of characters in a not-sister relationship; +1 compelling take on misogynoir in a White liberal setting

Penalties: -1 The whirlwind of events sometimes gets too intense

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Morrow, Bethany C. A Song Below Water [Tor Teen, 2020]