Skin of the Sea
Young Adult / Fantasy / Nigeria
Random House Books for Young Readers
November 2, 2021
"INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A Black mermaid takes on the gods themselves in this "impressive" fantasy debut that "blends West African history and Yoruban mythology to create a new fairy tale" (New York Times). The first book in a powerful series that is perfect for fans of The Gilded Ones and those eagerly anticipating the live action film adaptation of The Little Mermaid. 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." Publisher
Fantasy books are not my favorites; however, Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea is an exception. The book is a wonderful read and a good introduction to the Yoruba religion, specific gods and their functions to maintain society. The novel’s setting is Yorubaland, Nigeria during the 15th century at the beginning of the European slave trade when the Portuguese trafficked West Africans to the Americas as plantation laborers.
The novel’s main character is Simi, a teenage human girl that the orisha Yemoya has transformed into one of her Mami Wata mermaids. Simi’s assigned task is to convey souls who die at sea to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator. Semi dutifully performs her task until she encounters Kola, a boy who is still alive when tossed overboard from a slave ship. Simi saves him, an act disrupts the order of the sea, threatens all Mami Water mermaids and angers Yemoja. The events in the novel follow Simi and Kola’s journey to Olodumare to make amends and set life for humans and gods back to normal. To achieve their goals, the teens must appease the gods by doing different activities. They receive help along the way but the helpers are not always beneficial even in human form.
This novel has some challenges for the novice reader of Yoruba culture. There is no list of the various Yoruba gods and their functions. Consequently, the reader needs to keep a running list while proceeding through the novel. Also although I promote bilingual components within a work, this author/editor does not separate the Yoruba text from the English text. As a result, the reader may not realize that their? actually is a translation. Even as a reader of Yoruba, I stumbled over sections and found marking the Yoruba in a colored pencil helpful. It would be helpful to add more Yoruba in a sequel and provide a glossary of basic speech (greetings, numbers, foods, people) so the reader becomes familiar with the tones and diacritical marks of the language. In addition, a map for the points and features of Semi’s journey through Yorubaland would be helpful..
Bowen does provide a short academic bibliography. For readers seeking more information, this list is a good start.
Reviewed by Patricia Kuntz, Ph. D.
Published in Africa Access Review (August 21, 2022)
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