Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen
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A way to survive.
A way to serve.
A way to save.
Simi prayed to the gods, once. Now she serves them as Mami Wata–a mermaid–collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home.
But when a living boy is thrown overboard, Simi does the unthinkable–she saves his life, going against an ancient decree. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy it.
To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends. But something is amiss. There’s the boy she rescued, who knows more than he should. And something is shadowing Simi, something that would rather see her fail. . . .
Danger lurks at every turn, and as Simi draws closer, she must brave vengeful gods, treacherous lands, and legendary creatures. Because if she doesn’t, then she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Mami Wata exist to bless the souls of those who die at sea.
Created by the orisa Yemoja, the Mami Wata are her answer to the invasion of white men who aim to steal and sell her beloved mortal children. The seven Mami Wata take to the seas as mermaids to collect the souls of those who die in the ocean, and return to Yemoja’s island to complete the final blessing, returning those souls to the Supreme Creator.
But Simidele does more than just rescue lost souls. Surprising everyone, including herself, she saves a boy’s life as he tumbles overboard, and in doing so, jeopardizes the existence of the Mami Wata. With an ancient degree broken, she must join forces with the boy she saved and set up to beg forgiveness from the Supreme Creator before it is too late. There are other forces at work, though, ones that will do anything to see all of humanity suffer, and before long, Simi finds herself fighting for the whole of the world.
The orisas may be powerful beings, but Simi has the power of the sea to trust in. Perhaps that can make all the difference.
“When you peel back the skin of the sea, you never know what you will find.”
Easily the best part of Skin of the Sea is the delicate dance between wonder and danger. Unlike the other Mami Wata, who no longer remember their human lives, Simi clings to hers, always struggling to push away some of the fog surrounding the life she once led. She has a natural curiosity that couples well with her dedication to the world around her, and it ultimately turns her into a character with great compassion for her world and all the people and creatures in it.
Even when faced with dire threats, like powerful opposing orisas, river monsters, or looming famine, Simi’s first actions are to protect those around her, guard them from harm. Is it any surprise, then, that I loved her dearly? Guardian characters will always hold a special place in my heart, and Simi especially so. When the situation calls for it, she acts as a warrior guardian, ready to draw a blade and fight, but in moments of peace, she is more of a custodial guardian, taking care to preserve and protect her surroundings.
Her connections to the world around her are so strong, and make every conversation about family, friendship, and a wider world swirled into one under the Supreme Creator’s power that much more resonant.
But Skin of the Sea dives back to the ocean with a messy sort of splash in the end.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on connection is also why I gave the book 3.5 stars. It had been on track for 4.5, but the ending jarred me clear out of focus, and felt deeply at odds with the themes of unity and connection that Skin of the Sea so heavily relies on to build its base. After stressing how important it is to communicate clearly, to trust one another, to connect with your environment, the final scenes rip all that away.
On the one hand, it serves as a display of Simi’s devotion to doing right by the world. She makes a choice no one should have to make, and stands by it even though it brings little happiness after all her hard work. And on the other hand, it ruthlessly takes an axe to multiple characters the reader comes to love, and severs any lingering connections that might remain. Frankly, it feels a lot like the final chapter should have some kind of epilogue, some degree of follow-up that shows what impact Simi’s choices have on the world. Without that, it falls into a cliffhanger with no resolution in sight, and Simi’s dedication to Yemoja, the Mami Wata, and all of her newfound friends rings suddenly hollow.
If you want YA mermaids and a story brimming with reverence, with wonder, Skin of the Sea is for you.
Though I find fault with the ending, the rest of Skin of the Sea is a delight. It provides a fresh spin on mermaids coupled with loving tribute to the cultures of West Africa, and it does so with an unexpected grace. The sea hides many dangers and keeps many secrets, but in this case, it also brings lost souls home, cradles them gently until they pass. Powerful as it can be, it is also compassionate, delicate.
And, I am sure, it is more brilliant than my words can explain. If anything about Skin of the Sea remotely interests you, I recommend you give it a try. While I’m not certain my review can do it full justice, reading it for yourself absolutely will. 🌊
CW: violence (including gun violence), slavery, suicide, graphic injury, animal death, gore, loss of a loved one