A Mermaid Tests Her Fate in the West African Mythology-Inspired Tale Skin of the Sea

A Mermaid Tests Her Fate in the West African Mythology-Inspired Tale Skin of the Sea
A crop of the cover of Skin of the Sea; see the full cover, including mermaid tail, below! (Image: Random House Books for Young Readers)

When a mermaid saves a human life, she’s most definitely not hailed as a hero — she’s marked for terrible punishment because she’s broken an ancient law designed to protect her kind. In that vein, Nigerian-Welsh author Natasha Bowen drew upon West African mythology to create her fantasy debut, Skin of the Sea, and Gizmodo has a first look at one of the book’s most exciting encounters.

First up, here’s a plot description to give you a bit more context.

A way to survive. A way to serve. A way to save.

Simi prayed to the gods, once. Now she serves them as Mami Wata — a mermaid — collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home.

But when a living boy is thrown overboard, Simi does the unthinkable — she saves his life, going against an ancient decree. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy it.

To protect the other Mami Wata, Simi must journey to the Supreme Creator to make amends. But all is not as it seems. There’s the boy she rescued, who knows more than he should. And something is shadowing Simi, something that would rather see her fail. . . .

Danger lurks at every turn, and as Simi draws closer, she must brave vengeful gods, treacherous lands, and legendary creatures. Because if she doesn’t, then she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.

Here’s a look at the full cover; the artist is Jeff Manning and the art direction is by Regina Flath.

Image: Random House Books for Young Readers Image: Random House Books for Young Readers

And finally, here’s an exclusive excerpt revealing a pivotal scene from chapter six of Skin of the Sea.

A figure emerges from the sea. Yemoja pauses, her hair a black cloak around her shoulders, coils glistening underneath her crown, sharp and gold and shining in the sun. She steps onto the beach, her wrapper forming in perfect white and indigo folds, each sinuous movement bringing her closer to us.

“Do as I do,” I whisper as I bend my knees, lowering my gaze and all but pressing my forehead into the hot sand. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry. There is movement next to me as Kola folds his height into a bow.

“Don’t speak unless Yemoja demands it or I ask you.”

Dark brown toes reach the white sand in front of me as the scents of violets and coconut almost overwhelm me. I lift my gaze, skimming past muscular legs, past the bright white of the wrapper, edged in indigo and shot through with delicate gold threads, up to a thick necklace of bulbous pearls.

“Simidele?”

Just the lowness of her tone makes me not want to raise my head to face the orisa. But I do. Her veil sways, mouth a slice of full lips, pursed into a line. I lift my gaze higher to the flash of her eyes, which sparkle in a hard shade of silver.

“What is the meaning of this, daughter?” asks Yemoja, swivelling her head to look at Kola.

Beside me, the boy stands, wiping sand from his palms on the ragged wrapper tied around his waist. He looks at me and I clear my throat, pressing my shaking fingers to my sides. At least he’s not opening his mouth to make demands already.

“Mother Yemoja,” I begin, keeping my tone respectful. “Adekola would like to request your help. He — ”

The orisa holds a hand up, stopping me. Gold rings set with unpolished diamonds and emeralds glitter from her fingers. She tips her head on one side. “How did he come to be here, summoning me?”

“I saved him.” I lick my lips, tasting salt. “I pulled him from the sea.”

Yemoja snaps her head toward me, the pearls of her veil clicking loudly. “You did what?”

“I was about to gather his soul, but . . . he hadn’t yet passed.”

The orisa swivels to face me fully. “Did you fail to remember your task?” Her words are quiet but needle-sharp.

Shaking my head, I form my next sentence carefully, trying to keep the rising confusion that mixes with anger out of my voice. I saved a life rather than a soul. Surely saving someone is a good thing? “I didn’t forget, but I couldn’t let the sea and the sharks claim him. You speak of my purpose, but he was alive. To leave him would have meant his death.”

Yemoja looks down at my legs and the shine of my wrapper. “And so you’ve shown yourself to him and brought him here?”

The hiss of her voice makes me wince. I look back at Kola and think of his face when he saw the flick of my tail, the scales that melted into skin. At the time I wasn’t thinking, flustered by the effort of dragging him to some kind of safety. Shame and heat rise and spread across my chest and up my neck. But then I think of Kola slumped in the sand, the food he ate, and some of the guilt seeps away.

The sudden roar that the orisa releases causes me to stumble backward in the sand, losing my balance so that I fall hard. My heart slams against the wrapper tucked tightly against my chest as I cower before her. Yemoja raises her hands to the heavens, fingernails like talons as she screams again. Kola clutches his ears as the cry grows louder, piercing the air. I hear the waves smash against the rocks of the cove, and when I dare to look up at her, Yemoja stares down at me, a wall of water behind her. The blue mass shimmers, its weight held back by the orisa. For a moment, I think she will release it, battering the beach and us. I snatch a look at Kola, willing him to move closer to me. He would never survive.

“Mother Yemoja,” I say, raising a hand, palm up. “Please. When he’s healed, I can take him to the mainland and then no one else will need to know.”

The orisa quivers, obsidian hair cascading over her shoulders in a heaving mass as she regards me. Yemoja wavers, the corded muscles in her arms tight as she holds her fists high above her head. She glares at me, lips twisted into a snarl, but in her eyes, there is a gleam of fear.

“Please.” I stand and place a hand over my heart. “I thought I was doing what was right.”

The orisa regards me in silence for seconds that spread longer than I thought possible. And then she lowers her hands and behind her, the water drops, drawing back into the bay. I inhale deeply, checking that Kola is still close by. His shoulders are hunched, but his eyes are sharp and watchful. Yemoja’s fingers twitch and the sea grows placid once again. Her shoulders drop as she turns away from us.

“You don’t . . .” But the orisa does not finish before she staggers and then crumples to the ground.

Yemoja sits in the white sand, her wrapper spread around her like the petals of the flowers that we pick to summon her. Her face is angled toward her lap, curls a dark shroud that shield her from my gaze.

“Simidele,” she says softly, looking up at me through her hair. Her veil shines, iridescent strands of pearls that are tightly drawn across her nose and cheeks. A tear slides from underneath the milky orbs. “What you have done will mean our deaths.”

Excerpt from Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen reprinted by permission. Copyright Random House Books for Young Readers.

Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen is out November 2; you can order a copy here.


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.