My Rating: 4 stars
Many thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the ARC. This book was released today, November 2 2021!
In Skin of the Sea, Bowen takes “The Little Mermaid” and weaves it together with West African folklore to create this stunning tale of Simidele, a Mami Wata tasked with collecting the souls of those who die at sea. And with the transatlantic slave trade beginning and slave ships sailing through, there are many of these souls. But when she comes across a boy thrown into the sea alive, Simi saves him rather than waiting for him to die. I was mostly unfamiliar with West African folklore and had so much fun learning about it through this book. I was also thoroughly impressed with the ways Bowen blends this folklore with the fairy tale. I always love seeing diversity in fairy tale retellings, so seeing an African “Little Mermaid” was fantastic.
While the star of the book is definitely the folklore and culture, Simi is also a wonderful main character and narrator. She has only recently become a Mami Wata, and she struggles with letting go of her mortal life even though the memories are hazy. As the story moves forward, she remembers more and more until we have a full picture of Simi’s history and how she came to be a Mami Wata. I think Bowen handled this well, with both the memory snippets we get and and the slow reveal. Even though I guessed parts of Simi’s mortal life early on, it didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Bowen does a great job capturing the grief and loss Simi feels despite being unable to remember much.
The book is fairy fast paced and takes place over a short span of time. While this does work for an adventure story, it results in the relationships between characters feeling rushed. This is most notable with Simi and Kola, the boy she rescues. Of course, this is a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” so it’s expected that the mermaid falls in love with the human she saves. But it didn’t feel like there was enough time for Simi and Kola to really fall in love, especially with all the action that occurs. However, I did like how other aspects of their love story were handled (I’m not going to say what because spoilers), so I can’t complain too much. There are other moments where characters’ feelings seem to come and pass quickly without being properly dealt with. This is mainly the case with Issa, a young yumboe–or fairy–who helps Simi and Kola. There is one moment when Simi gets angry at him and another where Kola purposely lashes out in a misguided attempt to protect him. They both seemed to come out of nowhere, and the characters move on from them as if nothing happened. But this is ultimately a small flaw in an otherwise excellent book.
Overall, Skin of the Sea is a fantasy story rich with West African history and culture. It’s an absolute pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it!