SKIN OF THE SEA by Natasha Bowen

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Simidele plummeted from the slave ship into the ocean, she expected to die. She did die. But the goddess Yemoja remade her as a Mami Wata–a mermaid–and tasked her with collecting the souls of those who died on the ships, helping them toward their next life. Simi wishes her mission could be expanded to do more, to sink the ships and punish the slavers, but the Creator has strictly forbidden any interference with the mortals.

But when a living boy is thrown into the ocean, Simi can’t bear to watch him drown. She breaks the decree, pulling the boy to safety and hoping that none of the gods will notice. Unfortunately, by saving the boy she has stumbled into an ancient power struggle between the Creator and the trickster god, Esu. If she is to have any hope of saving the Mami Wata, she will have to journey with the boy she saved to find his twin siblings who were blessed by the gods and a pair of rings with the power to connect her directly to the Creator. But Simi will only survive the journey if she can keep herself from falling in love.

This book has a classic structure (magical heroine goes on a quest with the boy she secretly loves to defeat a powerful villain) and yet it feels fresh and exciting. Not only does it draw from the wealth of underrepresented West African folklore, but the incorporation of the real and terrible history of the enslavement of African people gives the novel a grounded quality you might not expect from a story of mermaids and gods. Bowen consciously weaves in West African culture, including mathematics, art, and gender politics, ensuring that her characters and the unnamed people on the slavers’ vessels are defined by their own rich and diverse identities, not by slavery. This excellent book is a must-read for YA Fantasy fans and an excellent addition to any public library or high school collection.

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