BOOK REVIEW: Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen
“African mythology is integral to this story. Learning about Senegalese fairies, the African version of a unicorn, the bultungin shape-shifters of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, and the Ninki Nanka river monster only added to my motivation. Black gods, goddesses, mermaids, and other creatures both deadly and magnificent … and all with African origins. Creating a story blending these and West African history became a passionate obsession.” ― Natasha Bowen, Skin of the Sea
We recently read Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen for our book club with a friend of ours. Chelsea received a copy of the book in her Once Upon a Book Club box, and one of the items in the box was a set of questions that can be used in book clubs to generate conversation and discussion. We typically do not have questions when we get together to discuss a book we read, but we have to say, we thoroughly enjoyed the questions and how they led to a thoughtful discussion!
Skin of the Sea is a young adult novel that is a West African reimagination of The Little Mermaid. The heroine of the story, Simidele, or Simi, is a Mami Wata created by the orisa/goddess Yemoja to help guide souls and lost spirits in the ocean to the afterlife. Simi comes across a young boy as he falls from a slave ship into the sea. As Simi swims to reach him, she discovers that he is not dead, and she cannot leave him to just die. Unfortunately, her decision to save the boy, who we learn his name is Kola, breaks the covenant Yemoja agreed on with Olodumare. Now, Simi finds herself on a quest, along with Kola, to beg for forgiveness from Olodumare.
One thing we thoroughly enjoyed while reading was learning about African mythology, as we both went into reading very ignorant on this subject. Skin of the Sea has a beautiful way to blend in history, African mythology, and a fantasy world that will peak your interest and attention. The detail to imagery that Natasha transcribes while introducing us to such beautiful, magical beings is breathtaking. We both found the mythology very enriching, and would love to read and learn more about it.
We thoroughly enjoyed all of the secondary characters throughout the book. Issa was a favorite for the both of us - he reminded Chelsea of one of the smurfs and Kelli was getting Groot vibes from Guardian of the Galaxy, LOL. We loved the connection and deep friendship between Kola, Bem, and Yinka. Then seeing them accept Simi and even form friendships with her was so sweet. We were not expecting what happened with each of these characters and was quite surprised, but seeing the sacrifice and devotion they had to Kola, and his siblings, was beautiful.
We both felt that the budding romance between Simi and Kola was a little out of nowhere and not as obvious throughout the story until the very end. One of these reasons could be that this was not the main takeaway from the story but it also was a little surprising to us, especially when looking back and thinking on their interactions as we did not notice chemistry between the two. When Simi first saves Kola, he comes across so crass and rude, not thankful or grateful. He is very demanding, even with Yemoja, but also not very forthcoming either with information when he needs their help more than we would say Simi needs his. As they journey together, there were times where it seemed to us that Simi was more intrigued and jealous even of Kola being human, something that she would never have again. Then once we started to notice a change in her attitude and demeanor towards Kola, we thought it might have been one-sided as it really didn't seem like they were connecting romantically but more with in their similarities of live and sacrifice. The very end of the story is where we felt that there deeper feelings between the two.
And that ending?? We were both extremely surprised to turn the page and it was the author's note. It just felt so abrupt and anti-climactic in a way. Kola and Simi survive the fight with Esu, Simi spoke with Oludumare, and then her deal with Olokun is revealed. The End. What? Just completely shocking and unexpected for the ending. We are both curious to read the next book in the series to see where things pick up, and if Kola and Simi will meet again. But we are also not jumping to read the next book as soon as possible.
There are many questions or thoughts that we still had once the story had ended. Why was Simi haunted with memories from when she was human, whereas it didn't seem like the other Mami Wata struggled with such a thing? How did Esu weave himself into Kola's village so quickly as Ifedayo, and be trusted so completely by Kola's father to send him with Kola when he goes to find his siblings? Is Yinka kin to the hyenas, and if so, how did she not know?
Some lines from the story that really stood out to us and makes you think and reflect even beyond this story:
"What is done is done. We cannot change the past, only learn from it. What happens next is up to you."
Let's think of a solution, not the problem. None of us prosper when we're divided."
"When you peel back the skin of the sea, you never know what you will find."
Overall, it was an enjoyable young adult fantasy read. It had a wonderful group of characters that each pulled at your heart strings in their own way. It had a beautiful take on the retelling of The Little Mermaid. It introduced the two of us to African mythology that we did not have knowledge of beforehand. The writing was easy and flowed nicely, full of imagery and creatures. We definitely recommend giving this a read if you enjoy fantasy and mythology.
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