2022’s A Chorus Rises is the second volume in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water series.
After being transformed to stone by Effie Freeman’s gorgon gaze, young black protagonist Naema Bradshaw, an Eloko1, was restored to life. Not quite the same life as she previously enjoyed. The siren song of Naema’s bitter enemy Tavia Philips awakened Freeman’s victims and Tavia is the hero of the day. Since heroes must have villains, innocent Naema is cast as the villain of the story.
Sirens are pariahs. Naema could reveal Tavia’s true nature to the world, were she the sort of malicious, ungrateful person who would do such a thing. She’s not, so finds herself in the uncomfortable position of keeping Tavia’s secret. She handles that fairly well, aside from an occasional threat to expose Tavia when Tavia irritates. It is an irritating situation. Portland only has room for one beloved supernatural black teen at a time. For Tavia to rise, Naema must fall.
Not only that … Naema is keeping an even more damning secret: Effie targeted Naema on Tavia’s order. Magnanimous Naema can be forgiven the occasional threats.
At an impasse in Portland, Naema heads to a family reunion in the Southwest. This proves more productive than expected. Naema learns secrets about Eloko nature that she would not have learned back in Portland; she makes contact with producer Leona Fowl, who claims to be keen on creating a movie telling Tavia’s side of the story; she discovers she has an entire dark-web community of supporters.
While the personal growth proves fruitful, it doesn’t take long for the other developments to go south. Leona Fowl may be a fellow Eloko but she’s a Hollywood producer first, a charming ethical void who has never heard of a boundary she could not stroll over in search of profit. As for Naema’s newly discovered fanbase? They’re not so much actual fans as Kiwifarm-esque trolls, whose supposed support for Naema is just a pretext to stalk women of all ages whom they believe to be sirens.
To confound the stalkers, Naema will have to do the unthinkable: team up with Tavia Philips.
The setting recalls the odd way in Marvel comics in which the public somehow manages to make fine distinctions between superficially similar groups2: sirens (black women with vocal superpowers) are held in maximum low regard while Eloko (black women with voice-based gifts) are held in maximum high regard. This reputation appears to be the product of years of sustained public relations work by the Eloko and their kin.
That said, the Eloko success only goes so far. One of the unpleasant learning experiences waiting for Naema is that, outside her carefully protected goldfish bowl in Portland, the fact that she’s a super-powered media star counts for much less than the fact that she is black and therefore the subject of intrusive law-enforcement from authorities who find it all too easy to assume that she is a siren, hence a presumptive criminal. It’s too much work to look for proof that she is a criminal.
I should manage some possible reader expectations here: this isn’t an enemies-to-friends novel; it’s an enemies-to-extremely-reluctant-allies book. Tavia won’t forgive Naema for threatening her; Naema isn’t going to overlook having spent some hours as a statue thanks to Tavia. Nor is Naema going to forget her suspicion that her boyfriend might have feelings for Tavia. However, both teens are able to recognize a bigger threat when they see it, and can put aside differences for the moment. Perhaps that’s their greatest superpower.
The novel is told entirely from Naema’s perspective. One has to admire the skill with which Naema avoids ever admitting being in the wrong, while at the same time displaying some less-than-entirely-perfect personality characteristics. The book is about personal growth. Lucky for the author that Naema has so much room to grow.
Perhaps because Naema is so resolutely flawed and so determined to avoid admitting error, I found this more entertaining than A Song Below Water, to which it is a sequel.
1: See here for more details, although Morrow’s take differs considerably from the source material. Morrow’s Eloko are charismatic, widely-beloved, almost always popular and unlike the myth do not eat people.
2: As discussed in this review, the Marvel superhero universe has a similar issue. Characters who gain their power through mutation (the so-called Mutants) were subject to social prejudice. Characters who gained the exact same powers through transformation (the so-called mutates) were not, even though to a quick glance mutants and mutates should appear the same. In this case, however, it’s clear the Eloko work hard to maintain their social status.