Genre: Fiction / YA Fantasy
Rating: 4-1/4 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: 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.
Skin of the Sea is a unique retelling of the classic Little Mermaid fairy tale. The author meticulously researched existing West African myths about undersea goddesses and blends those with the tale we all probably know in a distinctly not-Disney version. Her ability to blend this old classic with even older tales and create an entirely fresh, very contemporary feeling story is one of the best parts of this book for me, and underscores her thoughts in the author’s notes section about why representation matters so much.
The main character, Simi, is a Mami Wata, one of seven water spirits tasked with saving drowned souls from the deep and releasing them to a final peace. Simi winds up rescuing a boy, Koda, thrown overboard before he dies, but this sets off a chain of events where she must find a way to travel to the Supreme Creator to apologize for upsetting the natural balance of the world, and in doing so save not only Koda but herself and the other water spirits. Simi and Koda set off on an epic tale of adventure to try to put things right, as the world they travel through starts to show signs of chaos and despair.
The world that they live in is filled with beautiful, amazing, richly detailed landsdcapes and people. The author’s descriptions of both the sea and the land, with honey-scented flowers, sparkling waters and verdant trees, are so vivid you can imagine yourself stepping into any of the settings. Simi’s story of her previous human life is also told with heart-breaking detail, as we learn about her childhood and the impact her mother, a respected and creative storyteller, had on her upbringing. I wanted to step into the world of Simi’s childhood market and walk with her and her mother as they shopped for fabric and spices.
Also intertwined in the main story are other west African myths, which are seamlessly incorporated into the mermaid tale, and which contribute to the larger sense of culture and history that this book bring to life. One thing I wished was included was a guide to how the names and languages sounded. I really appreciated that the author of this work of fiction included a bibliography at the end for further reading – and I wished she had also included a glossary, especially of the character’s names, as I like to try to hear them in my head as I read. (Side note: This one might be a great audiobook although I read the print version so cannot comment on that.) My one other minor complaint was that, while the quest and adventure scenes built up speed and intensity as the book progressed, the pacing was a bit slow for me in the first few opening chapters.
Overall, this was an immensely enjoyable read and as the first in a series, is a world I plan to return to in the future.
Note: This book contains several triggers. It is set during the height of the Portuguese slave trade with west Africa. There are triggers for death and abuse, as well as violence, so I would recommend checking out the trigger list before starting this one.