Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen (book review)
GENRE: YA Historical Fantasy LENGTH: 303 pages PLOT Simidele is a Mami Wata or a mermaid tasked with collecting and blessing the souls of those who die at sea. When she saves a boy from the sea she unknowingly breaks a pack with the Supreme Creator. She must seek his forgiveness. Her journey is complicated by being pursued by the jealous god Esu.
Simidele (called Simi) is a character who it is easy to sympathize with. She is tasked with collecting and blessing souls but she herself is a lost soul. She has no memories of her life before when she is in her mermaid form but slowly regains them in human form. It was incredibly heartbreaking to watch her struggling with being torn between her two worlds that can never be one.
Kola is Simi's ally and love interest. He initially comes off as arrogant and annoying but the more we get to know him the more likeable he becomes. He is gentle and loving towards Simi and protective of his younger siblings. While I adored him and Simi together I did feel that their feelings altered too suddenly; essentially they suffer from the dreaded instalove.
Other allies join the two main characters on their journey. These include Issa who is a Yumbo (an African fairy). He is cute, young, adventurous, and eager to please. There are also Kola's warriors friends; Bem and Yinka. Bem is kind and loyal. I was worried when we met Yinka because it seemed like there was going to be a jealous rivalry between her and Simi over Kola. I like to see healthy female friendships in books NOT love triangles where women are pitted against each other. I was relieved that this ended up not being the case and came to quite like Yinka. She is fierce and brave and the friendly scenes between her and Simi were great.
Esu is the antagonist of this novel and he is unseen for most of the novel. I don't mind this, though, because his presence and the threat he poses is still very much felt. If anything it gives him a more ominous aura because he is this great, powerful unknown.
The novel is told from SImi's first person point of view. For the most part we are following her thoughts in the present tense, but interspersed there are flashbacks. These scenes are of Simi's life before becoming a Mami Wata. These scenes were some of my favorites. They add a lot of depth to Simi's character and were both heartwarming and heart wrenching.
This is a historical fantasy that takes place in the mid 1400s in Africa. This is a time when Africans were being captured and sold into slavery. Despite being set in a dark period of African history the novel is a celebration of African culture.
The writing is beautiful and impressive for a debut. One minor remark about it that I have, however, is that there is a twist reveal that I saw coming from a mile away. Bowen lacked the subtly that was needed to successfully accomplish this reveal.
My main gripe with this novel is that it is too short. I will forever maintain that there is a five star worthy story here if it was given an additional 1oo pages. 303 pages is not enough to establish all the characters, their relationships with one another, and the mythology held within this novel. The plot moves at warp speed. Characters are way too familiar with each other after too brief of a time. I struggle to be invested in their romances and friendships when they are so rushed.
There is such rich mythology here. There are the godlike spirits known as orisas who each have their own domain, there are of course the Mami Wata and Yumbo, and there is even a water dragon (the Ninki Nanka) and shapeshifting hyenas. Each one of these creatures could fill up a novel on their own but sadly we don't get to spend proper time of any of them. I almost wish Bowen had reigned herself in a little and limited her focus. Essentially, I think it would have been better to focus on a few creatures than trying to cram so many in given there is going to be a sequel.
FINAL THOUGHTS I read this during Black History Month and I think that was the ideal time to read it. If you're interested in African mythology or a fan of the Little Mermaid (whcih Bowen herself confirmed she is) then I'd recommend this novel to you. Even in spite of the hurried pacing it remains a touching story with a protagonist who is sure to tug on your heartstrings. I won't be picking up the sequel because I was content with the novel's ending.
FINAL RATING: 3.75⭐️