Author: Natasha Bowen
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: November 2, 2021
Print Length: 336
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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 goes against an ancient decree and does the unthinkable–she saves his life. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy the gods.
To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends. But all is not as it seems. 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 fails, she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.
This is yet another book that book Twitter inspired me to read soon after its publication. Not to mention the cover is absolutely gorgeous!
Skin of the Sea incorporates various African mythologies of Mami Wata (Mother of Water), who is often thought of as a single entity, though the name is also applied to other African water spirits and deities (Author’s Note, p. 304). The Mami Wata in this tale collect the souls of those who pass at sea so that those souls can rest at home. Many of the souls that Simidele (Simi) and the other Mami Wata find belong to those who passed away on and were then thrown overboard from European captors’ ships. To provide some historical context, Bowen explains that Skin of the Sea occurs during the mid-15th century, during which the Portuguese abducted West Africans for enslavement.
When Simi finds the body of a boy just thrown from a ship, she doesn’t expect him to still be alive. She makes a split second decision to save his life, even though this means revealing herself to a human. Unbeknownst to Simi, this breaks a decree where deities can’t directly intervene in the lives or deaths of humans. And so Simi must journey to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator, to beg forgiveness. Along the way she helps Kola, the boy she rescued, return home so that he can fulfill a familial duty. They realize that their goals share a commonality, and so they find themselves working together to save the fate of the world.
I really enjoy fairytale retellings and the incorporation of mythology into a story. I’m familiar with the western version of mermaids and sirens, but reading about the Mami Wata was entirely new to me. I’m not going to pretend I know anything about West African Mami Wata mythology beyond what I read in Skin of the Sea. However, I appreciated the introduction to another culture’s interpretation of mermaid folklore. I also recognize that I haven’t read a lot of fantasy books set on the African continent; in fact, I think this is my first. So I enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the landscape and Kola’s home community, settings which were also new to me.
Bowen did a wonderful job capturing and holding my attention from the first lines of the book. The writing is descriptive, but doesn’t bog the reader down with too many details. I also thought Bowen did a great job with imagery, particularly in the first chapter. English was never my favorite class in school (I hated analyzing things to pieces); so if an author can get me to notice imagery, hats off to you.
With respect to critiques, I have two small ones. The miscommunication (or lack thereof) trope is the device to spark the journey. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it mildly annoying when a main character isn’t told the full story about who they or what their duties are, so the end up breaking a rule. Then again, if there’s proper communication, would some adventures even exist? My other critique is a little bit more spoiler-y, so stop here if you don’t want spoilers. I felt like the chemistry between Simi and Kola needed more development. I expected them to eventually kiss (and they do), but the escalation/tension was almost nonexistent, in my opinion. For those who aren’t fans of fantasy romance, know that their relationship development is not the focus of this book.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Skin of the Sea. It was a great book with which to close out 2021. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, whenever it comes out. There’s even a sneak peak at the next book in the back of Skin of the Sea.
Content warnings: enslavement, blood, death, attempted suicide
Reading format: Library hardback