Bethany C. Morrow’s 2020 A Song Below Water: A Novel is a standalone contemporary fantasy novel.
Sisters-by-choice Tavia and Effie are African American teens (in uber-white Portland, Oregon), perpetually aware of the potential for casual abuse or worse from police. As stressful as this is, it could be far worse. Tavia has a secret: she is a siren.
Sirens are feared for two reasons. Firstly, they can control people with the power of their voice. Secondly, all sirens are African American. Powerful African American women are to be feared and hated. Whatever the strict letter of the law might say about killing sirens, the practice is winked at, even lauded.
Take the case of the late Rhoda Taylor.
Rhoda was murdered by her live-in boyfriend. Her death and the subsequent trial barely made the news. This changes when the defence asserts that Rhoda was a siren. Sirens can control people with their voices. Who is to say, therefore that she did not order her unfortunate boyfriend to murder her? At the least, killing her may have been pre-emptive self-defence. The defence’s success is no way inhibited by lack of any evidence to suggest that Rhoda was a siren.
In the past social activists ignored prejudice against sirens. Now sirens have had enough. YouTube icon Camilla Fox embraces her siren status and steps out as a social activist. Her outspokenness initiates an escalating series of public protests. Sirens are in the news.
Tavia’s passing-as-normal life was stressful enough before it was further complicated by romance. Or rather, failed romance. Her ex-boyfriend Priam turned out to be a jerk. Priam’s new girlfriend loathes Tavia and is eager to find any way to undermine her. There are consequences …
Tavia’s sister-by-choice Effie also has a complicated backstory: she was the sole survivor of an event that turned four children into stone statues. There are hints she too has a magical heritage. Unfortunately, her mother died before revealing who or what Effie’s father was.
At least Tavia and Effie have each other.
The plot kicks into gear when a cop takes an interest in Tavia and she panics. She uses her voice to send him on his way. Unfortunately, this interaction is witnessed by the cop’s partner. The cop was eyeing Tavia; he had his hand on his gun; then he looked away and took his hand off the gun. Why would a policeman stop threatening a African American girl if he hadn’t been mind-controlled?
It’s even worse that the cop’s partner is the father of Tavia’s ex, Priam. The partner has met Tavia; he knows exactly who Tavia is. Now he knows what she is.
There are some terrible parenting choices in this, one that coincidentally mirror the bad parenting choices in tomorrow’s book. More would be a spoiler but it’s odd how unrelated sequential reviews end up with these synchronicities.
Sirens aren’t the only supernatural creatures in this setting; we’re told about gargoyles, giants, sprites and more. But sirens seem to be the only supernaturals who are always African American. Powers of suggestion combined with skin colour inflame paranoia in a way that is quite plausible1.
There’s a lot of plot-driving failure to communicate or inform in this book. While Tavia and Effie do occasionally screw up (they’re teens, they’re still figuring things out), many of their problems are driven by ignorance. Things that they should have been told and weren’t. Those who kept mum weren’t doing it out malice; they thought it was the best way to protect their loved ones. That turned out not to be the case.
I liked the two main characters; I thought the prose effective. The plot does it’s best to end on an upbeat note, although one has to wonder what happens after the end of the novel. There are revelations. How will the public react? Perhaps the author will address this in a future novel…
1: It’s convention of modern fantasy that you can add beings like sirens, gargoyles, and sprites to your setting without significantly changing history. If you give that a second thought, it just doesn’t hold. If there had been powerful African sirens, they would have ordered slavers away. They might even have established their own seacoast autocratic kingdoms. In this setting, inexplicably, they didn’t use their power to prevent the slave trade.
But … this novel’s take on history isn’t any more absurd than the conventions of superhero novels/media or the SF conceit that you can break the laws of physics in plot-enabling ways without breaking the universe. We accept this, because you can’t have a story without breaking some eggs.