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“Skin of the Sea,” by Natasha Bowen: NPR

Random House Books for Young Readers

The little Mermaid is beautifully reinvented in this first YA fantasy which is inspired by African history and traditions.

Simi is Mami Wata, one of the seven mermaids created by the Yoruba deity Yemoja. When the first West Africans were kidnapped and enslaved by the Portuguese and taken from their lands, Yemoja followed them, helping the souls of those who died find their way home. She created Mami Wata to help her, so Simi does her duty and follows the slave ships, watching for the dead. But unlike other Mami Wata, she is troubled by confused visions of her past life as a human and longs to remember exactly what she has lost.

Then a young man falls from a slave ship and throws himself into the sea. His own is seriously injured, but not dead. Without considering the consequences, Simi decides to save him and bring him to safety rather than let him die. What she doesn’t know is that her actions will have dire consequences not only for herself, but for all of Mami Wata and even for Yemoja herself.

If Simi is to repair the damage she has caused, she will have to travel with Kola, the boy she saved, across sea and land in search of the Supreme Creator who shaped humans and deities. She must then implore absolution and find a way to make amends for her transgression. But finding the Supreme Creator won’t be easy, especially when she and Kola are pursued by Esu, the rogue deity, who seeks power at all costs.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Simi faces an even more bitter task: to avoid falling in love with Kola. Because if she falls in love with him and acts on that love, she will turn into foam on the sea and cease to exist.

The little Mermaid has long been a story that captivates our imaginations. Mermaids have featured prominently in folklore for thousands and thousands of years, from ancient Babylon through the centuries until 1837, when Danish author Hans Christian Anderson published a very little fairy tale sad about a mermaid who gives up her voice for love and turns into sea foam. So it seems fitting that the story is ready for a fresh new version that takes what she wants from Anderson and then swims through waters completely different, using myth to talk about the impact of one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Sea skin isn’t afraid to acknowledge the atrocity and horror of the slave ships Simi and Kola encounter, but he doesn’t choose to linger for long. Instead, the story takes a broader view of the lives of the people who were uprooted by slavery and the rich and complex cultures from which they were stolen. We meet rebels who have escaped and seek to free others. We see people struggling with the loss of loved ones. We meet the gods whose own existence has been stretched and twisted by the trials facing their worshipers.

I am not qualified to criticize the way Yoruba deities are represented in this book, but I appreciated how human and relevant these representations are. Likewise, the tradition in Sea skin, from Mami Wata to Senegalese fairies called Yumboes to a very fearsome river serpent, is lovingly portrayed and creates a rich and fascinating tapestry to complete Simi’s story.

Simi herself is a lovable character – always doing her best to do what’s right in the face of trauma and hardship. Hers is arguably the richest personality in history, which makes sense, given that she is the protagonist. I found some of the other characters to be a bit less developed as she gathers a team to help her on her quest. Eventually the adventure party got pretty big and I felt like there were maybe so many characters that it was hard for all of them to have their moment to shine.

But by the end of the book, it really comes down to Simi and the Gods, and the fascinating conclusion to their epic struggle definitely set the stage for a sequel. I’m sure Simi will have many ardent fans to wait for her next adventures.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Plume and Quire.

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