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skin of the sea review

Skin of the Sea is a sensational new YA fantasy novel by Natasha Bowen, writer and teacher. Set in 15th century West Africa, the novel follows Simidele, a mermaid-like deity known as the Mami Wata, on an epic journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Simi’s task is to bless the souls of those who lose their lives at sea and carry them on their journey back to Olodumare. That’s it. But when Simi encounters Adekola, who’s been cruelly tossed overboard by òyìnbó slavers, she discovers that he’s still alive. Against the wishes of Yemọja, patron spirit of the sea and Mother of all Òrìṣàs, she saves him. As Simi’s and Kola’s paths merge, they set off a chain of events that pit them against powerful deities and threaten the foundations of their world.

When I was a child, I used to gather my green Ikea duvet and spread it out across the landing floor. Shimmying down until the duvet was up to my waist, I’d wrap it around me, struggling to roll over again and again between the snug space I’d chosen. Using some sellotape I’d snuck from the kitchen, my small hands would carefully wind around my waist, my legs, until the duvet was no longer a duvet but a newly-formed tail, until the landing had transformed into a glossy blue sea. I’d play like this for hours, lost in a world of my own making. It was a world I felt safe in, one where I could swim far away from the general turbulence that marked my childhood.

I was enamoured with the sea and everything in it. Varied types of dolphin figurines adorned my chest of drawers, all of them collected on my adventures to car boot sales. To me, mermaids were real, and stories about them rapidly filled my bookcase. Back then, however, my biggest point of reference was The Little Mermaid. Don’t get me wrong, I love belting out ‘Part of your World’ now, at my big big age, as much as I did nearly 20 years ago. But as fascinating as Ariel was, she didn’t look like me. None of King Triton’s daughters did. Seeing a mermaid with thick curly hair and brown skin would have made me feel invincible, like I could exist beyond this reality, in a world where magic and adventure is commonplace.

Skin of the Sea finally realised that desire. What struck me the most was how lusciously the writing complemented each particular scene. Simi isn’t just speaking to Kola, she’s “letting the words stream past my lips.” Embracing Yemọja is like “hugging the sun and the moon, like fire and ice.” Bowen commands the elements with opulent finesse, using language to both link and coalesce her characters into nature itself. It felt like I was doing more than just reading — every time I opened the book, dazzling images projected from the page, displaying Simi’s and Kola’s journey as a cinematic experience. Through her writing, Bowen shows Earth as a living, breathing entity we are all connected to, its multifaceted essence reflected in her characters’ personality.

Bowen maintains a steady hold on the pacing as the plot progresses. Stakes gradually rise and recede, like tides of the ocean, always rippling, leaving you unsure of whether Simi and Kola are going to make it. Just before the midpoint turn, we see our protagonists face an intense clash with a tempestuous deity. What follows is a balm in the form of a heartwarming scene that introduces us to a sweet and zestful Yumbo. No sooner does that end, though, do we discover that the mission Simi and Kola have been risking their lives for has become, to quote Yemọja, “nothing but foam upon the sea.” The goals shift dramatically, and it feels like Simi and Kola have swum to a lifebuoy only to discover it’s been moved farther away. You’re allowed breaks short enough to absorb what the hell just happened, but never long enough to relax. So, in that sense, it’s like working in retail. But these are my favourite kind of plot lines. Ones that keep me on my toes, where I’m able to enjoy the quieter moments filled with good food, characters bussin’ jokes and connecting with each other on a more intimate level before being thrust into the action again.

With the peace of the spiritual and physical realm at stake, it’s a wonder there’s any time for intimacy at all. My biggest turn-off in any romantic subplot is ‘instalove.’ I’m a big romantic at heart, but give me authenticity or give me death. In Skin of the Sea, I witnessed a faithful companionship bloom into tender affection which, at many points, made me squeal into my pillow. Hypocrite that I am, I wanted to see more (allow me, please, I’m currently living vicariously through fictional characters’ love lives). But Simi can’t betray her morals and Kola is understandably preoccupied. It’s a slow burn, warming you to the promise of something deeper in the future. For Simi and Kola, family and duty come first, which is what makes them endearing characters. They understand this and neither of them gets in the other’s way. I’ve come to better appreciate the value of loving friendships in my own life, and the bond that grows between Simi and Kola solidifies that their care for each other goes beyond the romantic affection they feel. That’s enough for me.

I’m grateful to Skin of the Sea. I got to read the story I never did as a child, see myself as part of a world of magic. It’s funny, when you don’t see yourself reflected anywhere, it can make you question if you’re actually real. In this way, reading Skin of the Sea is a little healing for my inner child. My imaginary underwater world is a heaven instead of a hiding place, and in those mythical moments I get the chance to feel invincible.

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