Alex Brown Reviews Soul of the Deep by Natasha Bowen

Soul of the Deep, Natasha Bowen (Random House 978-0-59312-098-9, $19.99, 304pp, hc) September 2022.

Natasha Bowen’s Soul of the Deep picks up several months after the events of Skin of the Sea. Simidele, a Mami Wata, has been living at the bottom of the sea with the imprisoned orisa Olokun. She’s miserable, not just because she’s lost her freedom and can no longer see the sun, but also because she’s separated from Kola, the boy she never stopped loving. Even if she were still under the care of her creator, the orisa Yemoja, she still would not be able to be with Kola; love between a human and a Mami Wata is strictly prohibited.

The ramifications of her choices in the first book are bigger than the personal. Esu, the trickster orisa who caused her so much grief earlier, is now missing. In his absence, the ajogun, anti-god warlords who are prophesied to cause the end of the world, are scheming to break through to our world with the help of a wicked priestess. Once more, Simi must return to the land to set things right. She joins Kola, now a brave warrior, and her sea sister Folasade on a journey through human kingdoms and dangerous jungles. The orisa may be able to slow the priestess and her vicious army down, but only Simi can stop her.

One of this novel’s many selling points is its brevity. In a sea of young adult fantasy novels inching past the 350-page mark, Soul of the Deep is a tight 304. The plot moves quickly, but don’t mistake that for not being layered or lacking thematic depth. Bowen has a lot to say about the world, about power and oppres­sion, about doing what’s right even when it’s hard, about protecting your people no matter what. Nothing feels padded out or extraneous; everything on the page has a clear reason to be there.

Where last year’s Skin of the Sea was a loose retelling of ‘‘The Little Mermaid’’ with a West African twist and a focus on the enslavement of African people by òyìnbó (white people), Soul of the Deep instead examines the more complicated side of African enslavement: that of the African nations that captured and sold enslaved people to the òyìnbó. When fiction deals with slavery, it’s often simplified, a ver­sion where white people are the aggressors and Black people are the victims. Less often do we dig into the messier history of how Africans sold other Africans. There were myriad reasons behind those actions, far more than we can dig into in a simple review. Bowen probably could have done a better job exploring that messi­ness and relied less on a clear-cut good-and-evil division, but what we got was fascinating and compelling.

The only thing I didn’t love about this duology was the fraught romance between Kola and Simi, particularly here, where her attrac­tion borders on obsessiveness. She seems to have little interest in any­thing that isn’t Kola, whereas before Simi felt like a well-rounded person with her own life. Throughout the duology, their romance felt to me like it would’ve been better—and more impactful—as a friendship, especially given the ending of the sequel.

Fans of Black girl magic young adult fantasies like Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adey­emi, The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, or Blood Scion by Deborah Falaye would do well to pick up Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea duology. It has a fun, imaginative world populated by a determined heroine, a clever warrior second­ary, and fantastical creatures and deities.

Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.

This review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.

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