‘Skin of the Sea’ by Natasha Bowen: West African mermaids shine in this historical fantasy

Our Skin of the Sea book review dives into Natasha Bowen’s lush story about one mermaid who dared to defy the gods.

As soon as I saw this book was about mermaids, I knew I wanted to read it. I’ve been craving a good underwater fantasy for some time now, and this definitely scratched that itch.

If I’m being honest, the cover is what sold this book for me because, well, just look at it! Not only does it immediately draw the eye in with those soft blues and rich golds, but I loved seeing a Black mermaid take center-stage, staring directly into camera.

Skin of the Sea also introduced me to the West African concept of a mermaid, the Mami Wata, whose job it is to collect the souls of those lost at sea and guide them safely through to the next part of their journey.

Simi is still new to being a Mami Wata, but she knows what she must do to complete her calling. Despite having vague memories of her past life, she feels a freedom in swimming through the ocean, talking to every manner of sea creature, and doing her duty to the gods.

That is, until she comes face to face with a boy who is still alive when he’s thrown overboard. Simi doesn’t hesitate to save him, not knowing the magnitude of the consequences that await her.

In order to save her and the other Mami Wata from their fate, Simi must find a way to contact the Supreme Creator while evading those who wish to see her kind perish. And she must do this all while struggling with her own past and the truth of her origins.

As a character, Simi was easy for me to relate to—she wants to follow the rules and do her duty as a Mami Wata, and yet she can’t help but question her purpose. It’s especially difficult because as much as she knows she should forget about her past as a human, she finds herself hanging onto those memories.

And then there’s Kola, the boy she saved from the water. He’s grateful for the rescue, but perhaps a little bold in the face of the gods. Then again, he has good reason—all he wants is to be reunited with his family. It’s imperative he gets home in time to protect them from what’s coming.

skin of the sea book review

These two are distrustful of each other at first, but as they continue their journey, neither one can deny the feelings they have for one another.

While the plot of the story certainly takes precedence over the romance between Simi and Kola, I found it was the perfect amount of tension and sweet moments of clarity. Knowing this is a duology, I can’t wait to see how this aspect of the story plays out in the second book.

But the part of this Skin of the Sea book review I was most excited to write about was the way West African mythology has been interwoven into every page. As someone with little to no knowledge of these deities and tales, but with a fascination for mythology in general, I found myself excited to learn more.

As we were introduced to many of the orisas (aka minor deities) in turn, I couldn’t help but be interested in all the ways they influenced the land and the people in this story. Each had different abilities and realms of influence, and not all of them were particularly helpful or kind.

The way Natasha Bowen weaves the magic throughout this story makes it feel real. The orisas appear larger than life, and you’re both terrified and in awe of their presence. Even to a magical creature like Simi, they’re a wonder to behold. But it’s also how the every day people worship them that truly completes the picture.

As much as I liked this story, I also know it wasn’t written with me in mind. This will, undoubtedly, be someone’s all-time favorite book. It will speak to them on a level that I will never truly understand, but can appreciate all the same.

Many of those moments will come in the form of some of the story’s smaller details, like the way another woman braids a map into Simi’s hair in order to help them complete their journey to a mysterious island. It’s passages like these that are so full of culture and history, I could feel them leaping from the page.

Every description, from the characters’ dress to their mannerisms and the way the Yoruba language is written out on the page, adds to the vibrancy of this book.

However, I’d be remiss not to mention this in my Skin of the Sea book review: This novel comes with a content warning—it blends fantasy with fifteenth century history, which includes depictions of enslavement and violence, and will certainly be triggering for some people.

These scenes are powerful, and the way Bowen juxtaposes this dark reality with a bright fantasy is truly the mark of a fantastic writer and a terrific story that will speak to countless readers.

‘Skin of the Sea’ hit store shelves on November 2, 2021

Buy Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen on Penguin Random House, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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