By Heather A.
5 out of 5 stars ★★★★★
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.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This book blew me away! I love the relevancy of the subject matter combined with the urban fantasy elements.
A SONG BELOW WATER really did the WORK. The author managed to cover so many topics that are relevant right now, and have been ongoing conversations from Black people for SO LONG. The book touches cultural empathy vs competency, how freedom of speech only protects you from government retaliation, “supernatural-inclusive history,” aka history taught by the people who are marginalized, cultural appropriation (“everybody wants to be a siren, but nobody wants to be a siren”), Black Lives Matter, police brutality, model minority myth, and intersectionality, among other issues.
When I picked out a novel about sirens I wasn’t expecting it to hit so hard right now, but this is exactly the type of book we need. Sirens are persecuted and stereotyped so the main character Tavia tries to keep her power a secret from her peers. Her family knows, her sister/best friend Effie knows, and Tavia has a secret network of siren protectors that she can call upon. The book starts with a woman who is murdered by her boyfriend and there’s speculation that she was a siren, which apparently justifies her murder. It’s magical how as a reader you think that it’s not fair and are instantly on team siren. So often in the news, media will frame a death as justified because of a supposed “criminality,” and that is what is illustrated right off the bat.
So the subplot is the results of the trial for this alleged siren, and Tavia’s trying to keep her voice under wraps by disguising it as a vocal spasm, where she has to use signing instead of speaking. Tavia’s main conflict is that she is constantly silenced, and she wants to be free to use her voice. There is also a dual POV of Tavia’s best friend (also referred to as sister), Effie, who lives with Tavia’s family. Effie just wants to understand her identity because she hasn’t known her father, her mother passed away when she was young, and she’s been having these instances with blackouts. Tavia and Effie are a team, but they each have their own arcs and journey.
The plot comes together when the girls and their classmates decide to attend a Black Lives Matter protest for a wrongfully dead Black man. Tavia realizes she can use her voice here to enact real change when she sees her YouTube-like idol, who has recently come out as a siren herself, at the protest. The protesters are nearly attacked by police when the girls are rescued by Effie’s guardian gargoyle (yep, you read that right).
The mythos of the world here includes sirens, gargoyles, and elokos (And spoiler-y creatures I can’t mention here). If you google eloko like I did it is a troll-like creature that uses a bell to lure people into the forest to eat them, but in this world it’s just a charming person with a bell charm that is revered within the community. I really liked this article with Den of Geek with the author where she explains why she used the eloko myth. The author created this rich fantasy world that mirrored real life events, this is exactly what makes this fantasy book excel.
The novel checked all my boxes. I did not know how the ending was going to be resolved, but it felt complete and satisfying and unexpected (Effie!). I know this book will hit differently for a lot of people, but I just feel like it was written for Black girls and I’m just happy to have received a copy of it. The book celebrates Black hair, small joys, and growing up and being a Black girl in a world that does not appreciate Black bodies. More people need their hands on this!
“When we smile or we dance or we march or we win, it isn’t because we didn’t have reason to be afraid. It isn’t because the uncertainty is gone. It’s because we did it anyway. Because we cannot be exterminated.”