Set in a world much like ours, but pulsing with magic, Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water is a heady mix of mythos, power, and activism. Written as only the best fantasies can be, Morrow’s spellbinding novel takes some of the most identifiable aspects of our world—hipsters, racism, media spin—drops them in a mythical land (Portland), and forces them to live alongside mystical creatures like sirens, elokos, sprites, and gargoyles. What happens next is something wholly original and refreshingly new; a modern classic that reads like the best fairy tales with all of the punch of a contemporary tearjerker.
Sisters Tavia and Effie have more than a few things in common: dysfunctional families, traumatic pasts, and powers the world would do any and everything to quiet, subdue, and destroy. For years, Tavia has been forced to keep her identity as a siren a secret, living with the knowledge that the thing that makes her most her is also the thing that could get her harassed, jailed, or even killed. Even worse, there is no one more set on her silence than her own father, the very man she inherited her powers from, who fears the world more than his daughter’s misery. Tavia’s father knows what it was like for his mother to hide herself, and, having lived through the Siren Trials, he knows just how far the media can push and manipulate the image of a woman with a secret power. But that’s not all. Though Morrow’s sirens are much like the ones we know from mythology—notable for their supernatural, endlessly compelling voices—Morrow adds a new layer to their mythos: in the world of A Song Below Water, sirens are exclusively Black women. And even in a “post-racial” world like ours (or so our history teachers tell us), there is no one more easily condemned for having a voice than a powerful Black woman.
Then there’s Tavia’s sister, Effie. The two are not related by blood, but they are closer in some ways than any blood-siblings could be, for they have chosen one another, fully knowing the other’s faults, triggers, and the risks that come with associating with each other. Effie is not a mythological creature like Tavia, but years ago she had a severely traumatic run-in with a group of wayward sprites that turned her childhood game of Red Rover into a terrifying memory that launched her into the media as “Park Girl” or “That Girl From the Park” (and turned her friends into statues). Now she spends her days swimming, conditioning herself to the water so that she can take the lead as the Renaissance Fair’s lead mermaid. But lately she has begun having nightmares, blackouts, and hallucinations that suggest that there was more to that day than a few belligerent sprites. Meanwhile, Tavia is struggling more and more with keeping silent, and the girls are finding themselves having to protect one another from more than just high school gosspi and teenage boys.
Running parellel to the girls’ lives is the case of Rhoda Taylor, a Black woman who was murdered by her live-in boyfriend. Her death inspired a viral hashtag when social media users began circulating her picture and demanding to know why no one was saying her name. But the newfound media attention has turned the case on its head, with the defense now saying that Rhoda might have been a siren. And Tavia and Effie know exactly what that means to the rest of the world: her death—while certainly unfortunate, as the media will say—was justifiable. Now the world is talking only about the danger she might have posed to her boyfriend; not the danger she was in when she was murdered, nor the danger her reputation is in now that she is being tried in both the judicial system and the court of public opinion. Because all that matters now is that sirens like Tavia, no matter how hidden or obedient, are no longer safe… if they ever really were.
Sirens, mermaids, racism, viral hashtags, and social media influences. If this sounds like a lot to take in, don’t worry: Morrow blends her stories’ seemingly disparate elements so seamlessly that they seem real. Though the world she writes in is familiar to us, she still takes time and effort to build it, turning everyday Portland into something more akin to Middle Earth, Earthsea, or Westeros, a fully fleshed-out world where magic is part of the landscape, but not a part that can stop humans from acting as they always have, especially when faced with fear or prejudices. Her pace ebbs and flows at just the right times, with Morrow dropping a heartstopping plot twist and then slowing things down just enough to give her readers time to absorb the severity of what just happened. Though some readers may want more action, I found Morrow’s pace compassionate and thoughtful–even when things are slow on the page, there is always something simmering in the background, and Morrow does not let you forget it.
Tavia and Effie are some of the most compelling protagonists I have read in some time. Morrow alternates their chapters and though each one informs the next, the girls’ narratives stand completely on their own. This is not the sort of book where the path of one character can hint at or even dictate the other. Blending the girls’ storylines is an act that seems nearly easy for Morrow—an illusion, certainly, but one beautifully maintained. Morrow’s literary dexterity is on full display in Tavia and Effie, and though they are easily categorized as “siren” or “mermaid,” Morrow reveals them to be so much more: they are teenage girls who know what it is like to be refused, silenced, and attacked, and still they are more powerful than anything the world has to throw at them.
What really sets A Song Below Water apart from other fantasies is the way that Morrow turns the genre on its head, reminding us that even in a world where authors write and are applauded for creating purple, scaled, flying, or even invisible characters, many still do not make room for real diversity in their works. Without ever stating it explicitly, Morrow asks her readers to demand more from the books they read and to ask, as so many POC authors and readers have asked before: why do gatekeepers consider a Black character less believable than a completely made-up one? Juxtaposing her characters’ races with their supernatural qualities, Morrow forces us to consider why it is the Black sirens specifically who are brutalized in A Song Below Water, when elokos, sprites, and even literal gargoyles are famous and beloved. Unfortunately for us, the answer hits very close to home.
In America, we tend to like our fantasies served straight up: there is magic, there is a hero, and there is a villain. If a fantasy is well-written there may even be a real-world connection, like a vicious tyrant or a systemic hierarchy that prevents those of different races or classes from moving upward. But in A Song Below Water, Morrow forgoes the simple for the brilliant, cutting aside a simple tale of morality bound with magic and putting her readers smack in the middle of a series of painful truths about race, activism, and power. This cannot have been an easy book to write, and yet Morrow has clearly poured her heart and soul into it, giving her readers an unforgettable gift. A Song Below Water is an emotionally complex, luscious fantasy packed with timely and searingly current social commentary, and it has left me with the belief that Morrow can do anything.