Culture Writer Lucy Parry reviews the young adult fantasy Skin of the Sea, highlighting the amazing world building and romance
Content Warning: This article mentions slavery which some readers may find distressing.
The cover of this book enticed me as soon as I saw it because I love mermaid stories – but Skin of the Sea is no ordinary mermaid story. Using West African mythology, Natasha Bowen set her tale in a version of the mid 1400’s, when European sailors started stealing people to sell into slavery. The main character, Simidele, is one of the Mami Wata created by Yemoja. They are mermaids whose purpose is to save the souls of the enslaved who are thrown overboard on the journey. When Simi finds a young man, Kola, still alive, she saves him and unwittingly breaks a decree from the Supreme Creator. To save her kind, Simi must embark on a perilous journey.
The world building in Skin of the Sea is wonderful. I really liked that Bowen highlighted the magic of the natural world, both in the sea and on land, while adding carefully selected fantastical elements from mythology. Simi has the ability to take on a human form, but talking on this form weakens her and she is always drawn to water. The most magical beings in this book are the orisa, of which there are hundreds. Bowen only introduced an orisa and their powers when they entered the story, so it never felt like too much information at once.
Skin of the Sea’s plot has a classic quest structure with some brilliant twists and turns that I didn’t expect, and the pacing is great. I loved that Bowen gave a complete story while opening doors for the sequel. However, I would have liked Simi to have a strong friendship with one of the other Mami Wata to provide more motivation for her taking on this quest. The age of Kola’s twin brother and sister could have been made clear earlier in the story as well – I didn’t understand Kola’s level of urgency to get back to them because I assumed they were 14 or 15, when they’re actually only 8 (and very cute in my imagination).
I would die for Simi. She is exquisite as the protagonist. She had a human life, but when she became a Mami Wata, she lost all her memories of that life. As she spends longer in her human form during the quest, her memories start to return. Watching Simi experience these memories, both happy and traumatic, was extremely emotional and really helped me connect to her. Her journey to find her identity as a mermaid beautifully mirrors her progress with the quest and ultimately helps her complete it. The romance between Simi and Kola is a forbidden romance and a slow burn; the yearning is truly top-notch.
Bowen wrote with great compassion and empathy about difficult topics such as people being stolen from their families and homes. She also explored the theme of who gets to survive and who has the power to decide that really effectively. One of my favourite parts of this book was how Bowen seamlessly blended the Yoruba language into the narrative. Bowen managed to not make it confusing at all, and I even learnt a few words from the context alone. This was not part of the story, but I loved that she provided further reading recommendations for areas of interest which could have been piqued by Skin of the Sea. I added a few to my ever-growing TBR.
Skin of the Sea is an incredible debut novel that I highly recommend. I am so excited for the sequel and to return to this world and to Bowen’s beautiful writing.
Skin of the Sea will be published in the UK on November 4th 2021. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing a proof in exchange for an honest review.
Content Warnings for the book: Skin of the Sea blends fifteenth-century history with fantasy, and there are depictions of violence, enslavement, death and suicide.
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