*Given an advanced reading copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow follows two teen girls who call themselves sisters as they evolve into their true selves in an environment that discriminates against who they are.
Effie is changing. Her skin is unbearably itchy as she keeps scratching her scalp around her locs. She tries to conceal this irritation by remembering she’s Euphemia the Mer, the town faire’s cosplaying mermaid, along with Elric, the cosplaying merman. As the faire is set to begin, Effie can’t concentrate as a murder case of a siren becomes news. And Effie still hasn’t gotten over her friends turning into stone years before at the park while she was spared. In this story, sirens live among humans and are exclusively black females, so they face severe discrimination since society wants white sirens.
Tavia is a siren who lost her voice. She and Effie become sisters when Effie’s grandmother sends Effie to live with Tavia’s family. For Tavia, she’s having a hard time getting over her ex-boyfriend, Priam, an eloko, the beings connected to sirens who manifest in other races, so they don’t get the same degree of discrimination like sirens.
This fantasy YA novel mixes fantasy and reality, but the story can get lost in the weeds amid the constant world-building involving multiple magical beings. The racial thread is interesting, but most of the time blackness is described through Effie scratching her scalp and watching a natural hair YouTuber who turns out to be a siren. Effie’s hair and skin become the main issue, above the murder trial she’s paying attention to or Tavia getting pulled over by the police. The setting is Portland, Oregon, a community that has become notorious for not supporting its black population. Also, a gargoyle is perched on their roof at home. Making sirens black and emphasizing how they’re expected to be white is an interesting comparison, especially with mentioning a high-profile murder of a black woman suspected to be a siren and how it’s playing out in the media. The threat of showing magic affects both Tavia, who already knows she’s a siren, and Effie, who’s not sure who she is yet though she suspects a siren.
Overall, the black girl magic theme underlies this story of two teen girls trying to find their place in high school among human beings and other beings while remaining true to their destinies.