Mini-Reviews: A Song Below Water & Newt’s EmeraldA Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
Series: A Song Below Water #1
Published by Tor Publishing Group on June 2, 2020
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 288
Source: Purchased

Bethany C. Morrow's A Song Below Water is the story for today’s readers — a captivating modern fantasy about Black sirens, friendship, and self-discovery set against the challenges of today's racism and sexism.

In a society determined to keep her under lock and key, Tavia must hide her siren powers.

Meanwhile, Effie is fighting her own family struggles, pitted against literal demons from her past. Together, these best friends must navigate through the perils of high school’s junior year.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice at the worst possible moment.

Soon, nothing in Portland, Oregon, seems safe. To save themselves from drowning, it’s only Tavia and Effie’s unbreakable sisterhood that proves to be the strongest magic of all.

"It's beautiful and it's brilliant.”--Jason Reynolds, #1 New York Times bestselling author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

“An enthralling tale of Black girl magic and searing social commentary ready to rattle the bones.” — Dhonielle Clayton, New York Times bestselling author of The Belles

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Bethany C. Morrow’s  A Song Below Water is a YA urban fantasy with a great concept that unfortunately suffers from poor execution.

Tavia and Effie are sisters in all but blood. Black teenage girls living in Portland need to stick together, right? Even more-so when one of them is a closeted Siren, a magical group that’s misunderstood and vilified in popular culture. The fact that all Sirens are Black women makes their persecution even more intense and obvious, and Tavia isn’t sure how much longer she can keep her voice quiet.

Despite their differences in personality and experience with magic, I struggled to differentiate between Tavia and Effie’s respective voices, with their chapters reading almost the same. Since most of the plot follows Tavia’s struggles with anti-Siren sentiment and anti-Blackness more broadly, I don’t think that Effie’s perspective was necessary from a narrative point of view. The secondary characters were somewhat flat (the “villain” was especially one-note) but I can appreciate that this YA novel actually includes older people. Parents and grandparents are very present in the story and while they do create obstacles for the protagonists, their motivations are understandable.

This story is bursting with interesting ideas about magic, racism, and fighting injustice, but that’s the problem: it’s absolutely bursting. There are too many story elements competing for attention. As it’s written, this story needed two books for enough space to build out the characters, the social issues at the core of the story, and the magic system. Bethany C. Morrow has crafted an intriguing version of classic mythological creatures and I wanted to see more of that. I’m sure Morrow expands the mythos in the sequel, but it follows another main character and I don’t feel compelled to read her story.

Mini-Reviews: A Song Below Water & Newt’s EmeraldNewt's Emerald by Garth Nix
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on October 13, 2015
Genres: Fantasy of Manners, Young Adult
Pages: 304
Source: Received from publisher

Inspired by the works of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Garth Nix's Newt's Emerald is a Regency romance with a fantasy twist. New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger calls it "charming; quite, quite charming." 

After Lady Truthful's magical Newington Emerald is stolen from her she devises a simple plan: go to London to recover the missing jewel. She quickly learns, however, that a woman cannot wander the city streets alone without damaging her reputation, and she disguises herself as a mustache-wearing man. During Truthful's dangerous journey she discovers a crook, an unsuspecting ally, and an evil sorceress—but will she find the Emerald?

If you’re looking for a deliciously frothy and magical treat, Newt’s Emerald is for you! This story is a complete departure from Nix’s previous work and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to fans of his mega-popular Abhorsen series. This is a fantasy of manners in its simplest form and it’s a better pick for fans of the genre classic Sorcery & Cecelia.

Growing up with a gaggle of boisterous, beastly boys – her cousins – has unwittingly prepared the Lady Truthful for the adventure of a lifetime. When her family’s priceless heirloom emerald is stolen, she simply slaps on a glamour-enchanted moustache, puts on her best cousin impression, and sets out to scour the streets of London. What could possibly go wrong?

I loved the heroine, Lady Truthful (nicknamed “Newt”) who was sassy and engaging. The side characters are also great fun, especially Newt’s elderly aunt and chaperone Lady Badgery, whose liberal application of her sword-stick-slash-magic-wand had me in stitches. I think I would’ve truly loved this had it not been for Charles, Newt’s love interest. Oh, Charles. I’m assuming that I was meant to read him as gruff with a heart of gold, but I thought he was a misogynistic arse. He behaves obnoxiously for most of the story and he doesn’t even properly apologize to Newt! Not unusual to see a love interest behave this way, but I felt the absence of a “grovel scene” keenly. But their romance does takes a backseat to the adventure plot and it’s treated so lightly that I could almost forget how much I disliked it.

Nix is clearly a Georgette Heyer fan, employing a similar tone, structure, and style. His tongue-in-cheek tone hits just the right note and emphasizes that we’re meant to focus on enjoyment here – not logic. The magical system and characters are a smidge underdeveloped, and the plot is also rather predictable and convenient. Newt’s Emerald is a flaky croissant of a book dusted with the icing sugar of all my favourite genre tropes. The thing about a croissant is that in spite of their deliciousness, they don’t leave you full for long.

Newt’s Emerald promises a playful romp and that’s what it delivers. If you’re expecting more, you’ll be disappointed.