I read the YA fantasy novel A Song Below Water by Black author Bethany C. Morrow. It’s a powerful book, but the oppression it portrays might not make it the best escapist read right now.
In case you missed it, last week I wrote about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. I’m thinking of renaming my WIP so it has “song” in the title.
Rain: I get to start this time! This book was such a weird mix. It’s set in the real world, which I don’t approve of, but it had all these mysterious magical elements that I loved so much. There’s only one gargoyle in Portland, and it lives on the roof of the main characters’ house. Sirens are real–they’re always Black women–but they look like people and live like anyone else, and there are magical elokos who also look like people and are universally adored, sprites whose pranks occasionally go too far–
Sebastian: I got it. You liked the magic stuff.
Rain: I did. I also liked how not everything was explained–not straight away and in some cases not at all. It made the story world feel bigger than what exists between the covers of the book.
Sebastian: World-building how it should be done.
Rain: But mixed in with the cool magic was a bit much young adult boy-girl angst. I know some readers love that stuff, but I’m not a fan.
Sebastian: You knew it was a YA book when you bought it. It’s not fair to complain now.
Rain: I’m not complaining. I’m pointing it out so other readers who don’t like that stuff can steer clear, and people who do like it know it’s here.
Sebastian: I don’t disagree, but the book didn’t focus that much on the teenage angst.
Rain: It still irritated me, plus the way that part of the story ended felt rushed.
Sebastian: Fair enough. You said the story was a weird mix. Magic and teen angst go together all the time in YA. What else did you have in mind?
Rain: The whole serious, weighty issue of systemic racism. Especially given what’s going on in the world at the moment. It felt a bit too real–not what I’m necessarily looking for when I sit down and open a fantasy novel.
Sebastian: You didn’t like that aspect? I thought it was so powerful and beautifully done. The whole world where sirens are always Black women, the double racism they face because they’re Black and people are scared they can command anyone with their voice. Then the Black Lives Matter protest–
Rain: Too real.
Sebastian: –the death of the woman who was suspected of being a siren and how it became about whether she was a siren or not, not whether she was murdered.
Rain: Way too real.
Sebastian: It was masterful.
Rain: It started out too in-your-face, then disappeared while teen angst went on, then came back, but the resolution didn’t ring true to me.
Sebastian: I thought the resolution was very clever, but I agree the gravity of it didn’t match the gravity of the theme of oppression when it was introduced. Not that I object to Magical Black Girls getting a happy ending–
Sebastian: Grow up. Not that sort of happy ending. As I was saying, I think we need more books where Black Women get a happy ending–
Rain snickers again.
Rain: That wasn’t any better.
Sebastian: –but I had trouble believing people would abandon their prejudices that easily.
Rain: I like to think they would.
Sebastian: You have too much faith in people.
Rain: You’ve seen the news. How can you still say that?
Sebastian: Systemic racism’s been a problem for hundreds of years and most people have only just decided maybe it’s not okay.
Rain: Better slow than not at all.
Sebastian: We got distracted. Did you want to make any other points about A Song Below Water?
Rain: One thing, but it’s not specific to this book. What’s with all the smirking in YA? Throughout the book the main characters–who like each other–are incessantly smirking at each other. To me, smirking always had a bit of a smug, negative connotation. Did we get rid of that? I thought maybe it was a quirk of this writer, but when I finished the book I started reading another YA book, and in the first few pages more smirking!
Sebastian: You need to stop reading so much YA.
Have you read A Song Below Water? Did Sebastian and Rain miss the point? Do you really want a gargoyle protector now too?
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