Mix West African lore with The Little Mermaid and you get this exciting fantasy novel and the beginning of a series featuring Simidele (Simi) the Mami Wata (mermaid) who inhabits the waters around West Africa in the 15th century when the trans-Atlantic slave trade is beginning to grow. This YA novel is a combination of fantasy and fact, allowing Natasha Bowen to introduce readers to factual information about West African cultures and society as well as the myths and lore of the diverse people who live there.
Simi was born human but became a Mami Wata, i.e., a mermaid/servant of the Orisa (goddess) Yemoja who inhabits the waters and helps those who die at sea to make their final journey to the afterlife and reunion with the supreme Orisa Oludumare. The story of Siri’s past as a human and her transition to Mami Wata is told in flashbacks throughout. Simi helps shepherd souls to the next life, and as such a shepherd, she is able to change from a tailed and finned water creature to a human-looking young woman when she is on dry land. As a mermaid, she mostly forgets her past but whenever she is on land, bits and pieces of it come back to her. Simi loves Yemoja and tries to be a faithful servant, but she, unlike the other Mami Wata, seems to still be drawn to the land. When Simi saves a young man (Kola) thrown overboard from a passing ship and allows him to see her as both mermaid and in human form, Simi has broken an important rule and has endangered the other Mami Wata and Yemoja herself. Now she must ask forgiveness of Oludumare, but this is not simple. Simi will have to undertake a dangerous journey in order to find special, powerful rings, but these same rings are desired by Esu, the trickster messenger Orisa who is also very jealous and power hungry.
The rings and this journey are tied to Kola and his family, and as Simi will learn, the fate of the world is in the balance. Simi will have to find help and make deals with others — both human and divine — whom she might not be able to trust. Those who have read Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone series will be familiar with some of the divine beings who play a part in this novel. As is often the case with gods and goddesses, rivalries and jealousy amongst them can cause problems for the world of humans. Bowen also introduces readers to the fairy people known as the Yumbo as well as some truly terrifying monsters. The most monstrous though might just be the oyinbo — the white Europeans who make deals with some tribes to enslave others. The horrors and evil of this transaction are linked to the actions of some of the Orisas in the story, and the explanation of this is really wonderfully done. One of the overriding themes of the novel is the danger and evil that can occur when one person or a small group (human or divine) consider themselves superior and worthy of all power over others.
Skin of the Sea is also a love story a la the Little Mermaid. Simi finds herself drawn to Kola, but a number of divine obstacles stand in the way of this potential relationship. I really loved the way Bowen adapted that fairy tale to her own story. Simi has to make some difficult decisions, but she proves herself to be a smart, responsible and courageous young woman. It looks like a volume 2 is in the works, which is great news because I want to know more about Simi and her friends from Skin of the Sea. This is a great re-imagining of a classic fairy tale and a very cool introduction to West African myths and history.