Skin of the Sea

Skin of the Sea

by Natasha Bowen

Narrated by Yetide Badaki

Natasha Bowen

Unabridged — 11 hours, 28 minutes

Skin of the Sea

Skin of the Sea

by Natasha Bowen

Narrated by Yetide Badaki

Natasha Bowen

Unabridged — 11 hours, 28 minutes

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INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ¿ The must-read Black mermaid fantasy series that #1 NYT bestselling author Nicola Yoon calls “epic and original,” in which one mermaid takes on the gods themselves. Perfect for fans of Children of Blood and Bone and anyone who can't wait for the live-action The Little Mermaid.

“Riveting.” -NPR
“Evocative.” -Entertainment Weekly
“Remarkable.” -Buzzfeed

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 goes against an ancient decree and does the unthinkable-she saves his life. And punishment awaits those who dare to defy the gods.

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 fails, she risks not only the fate of all Mami Wata, but also the world as she knows it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

★ 09/27/2021

In Bowen’s dazzling debut, rooted in West African mythology and mid-1400s history, Simidele is a mermaid, or Mami Wata, tasked by orisa Mother Yemoja to collect and usher to the afterlife the souls of deceased West African people thrown overboard from passing slave ships. When a living teen named Kola lands in the water during a violent storm, Simi defies Yemoja and Olodumare, the Supreme Creator, and saves his life. Haunted by the memory of the captured human girl she was before she was “remade” into a Mami Wata by Yemoja, Simi pleads with Yemoja for help returning the boy home, whatever the cost. To protect her Mami Wata family from certain death at Olodumare’s hand, she travels with Kola to make restitution. But there is something deadly pursuing Simi, and it has a terrible plan. Reinvigorating the image of West Africa as not merely a site of human suffering but a historical place of great invention, fellowship, and hope, Bowen relays a story as lushly described as it is cinematic, centering a brave, headstrong protagonist coming into her own power in an age of change. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. (Nov.)

From the Publisher

Instant New York Times Bestseller
NPR Best Book of the Year
PopSugar Best New Book – November 2021
Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
Children’s Africana Book Awards – 2022 Honor Book for Older Readers
Top 10 YALSA Amazing Audiobook for Young Adults

"Bowen has built an impressive mythology to buttress her fairy tale, and it's a pleasure to discover this world through Simi's eyes." The New York Times

"An evocative debut." Entertainment Weekly

"Riveting . . . I'm sure that Simi has many ardent fans to await her further adventures." —NPR

"Remarkable." Buzzfeed

“Skin of the Sea is one of the most epic and original fantasies I've read. . . . Simi's story will stay with me for a long time to come.” —Nicola Yoon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Instructions for Dancing
“The most engrossing, thought-provoking, beautiful novel I’ve read in ages. Skin of the Sea knocks your socks off and leaves you wanting more." —Namina Forna, New York Times bestselling author of The Gilded Ones
“An enchanting, unputdownable fantasy. Bowen’s lush world building and beautiful prose will have you rooting for these characters from page one. A triumph of storytelling.—Kalynn Bayron, New York Times bestselling author of This Poison Heart

★ “A story bursting with innovative inspiration . . . a divine debut." Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Reinvigorating the image of West Africa as not merely a site of human suffering but a historical place of great invention, fellowship, and hope, Bowen relays a story as lushly described as it is cinematic, centering a brave, headstrong protagonist coming into her own power in an age of change." Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Any story about literal Black girl magic featuring a Black mermaid is sure to shine, but Bowen’s story swims to sparkling heights.” Booklist, starred review

"Give this book to everyone, but especially fans of mythological and well-crafted fantasy." School Library Journal

"Those who have been riveted by the many new West African-inspired novels of the last few years including Children of Blood and Bone and The Gilded Ones will find this a worthy addition to the genre, and readers new to an African fantasy setting have an excellent introduction here." —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"An inspired take on Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid' that blends West African religion and history in an immersive adventure. . . . Skin of the Sea painfully entwines love and sacrifice to create a story as powerful and majestic as the sea itself." BookPage

"Bowen combines a classic quest plot with a rich and still-underrepresented mythology . . . [an] inventive supernatural fantasy." The Horn Book

School Library Journal


Gr 10 Up—It's been three months since Yemoja remade Simidele in the image of Mami Wata (a mermaid) and tasked her with recovering the souls of those who perish in the water. Though she knows this to be a gift, as she would otherwise be a soul sent back to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator, Simidele still clings to the memories of her human life. When a living boy named Kola is tossed from a slave ship, she rescues him and in doing so unknowingly breaks an ancient decree from the Supreme Creator—an act that could cost her very existence and that of her fellow Mami Wata sisters. She needs Olodumare's forgiveness, but another jealous Orisha is dogging her every step, hoping that she fails. It is no easy thing for a single girl to defy the gods. Blending West African mythology with the dark history of the slave trade, Bowen weaves a magical tale that will delight readers. Despite its heavy subject matter, this book is a testament to the strength of the human spirit amid tragedy that never shies away from the horrors it conveys. VERDICT Give this book to everyone, but especially fans of mythological and well-crafted fantasy.—India Winslow, formerly at Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2021-09-15
A mermaid seeks to appease the Supreme Creator after a rescue attempt goes awry.

Saved by the goddess Yemoja and turned into Mami Wata, a mermaid charged with granting safe passage to the souls of enslaved people who are thrown into the sea, Simidele, a teenager with brown skin and eyes and dark curls, still holds the memories of her family and life on land even though she is now one with the water and its creatures. When Simi instead saves the life of a boy who is thrown overboard, she unwittingly enters into dangerous intrigue. She must return to land, suffering shooting pain in the soles of her feet as she travels in her human form, to save lives from the cruel machinations of a power-hungry god. Excellent pacing moves readers through action-packed introductions to the brilliance and power of surprisingly down-to-earth orisas—Yoruba gods and goddesses—along with other deeply empathetic characters, each combating in their own way the trauma and horrors of the emerging slave trade. The vibrant focus on West African religious traditions organically enriches beloved, familiar elements—like another well-known mermaid, Simi will turn to seafoam if she acts on her love for a human—in a story bursting with innovative inspiration, such as maps braided into hair that showcase West African civilizations’ mathematical prowess.

A divine debut that explores the glories of West African myth, religion, and history. (author's note, content note, further reading) (Fantasy. 14-18)

Product Details

BN ID: 2940177115191
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 11/02/2021
Series: Of Mermaids and Orisa , #1
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 647,471

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I circle the ship with the sharks, slipping between dark waves. The water is layered with cold currents, sea creatures, and a ship that slices through it with cargo holds full of stolen people. I swim underneath the swells, away from the gaze of men and just out of the reach of jaws.


The hull of the vessel is a shadow above me, and as I follow the line of the keel, my chest tightens, hot rage building against my rib cage. I spin away as fish flit around me, stretching my fingers up toward watery sunbeams. It has been weeks since I have felt the burn of a midday sun. I miss basking in its light, letting the heat soak into my bones. Closing my eyes, I reach for a memory that twists and coils like smoke. I’m sitting on red-brown earth under the dappled shade of a mahogany tree, splashes of sun on my hot skin. Eagerly, I grasp for more, but as usual, the vision fades.

My stomach churns with disappointment as sharp as red coral. Every time, the loss feels the same, as if a part of me is within reach, only to dissolve like mist on the tops of the waves.

I turn in the water, a shiver of skin and coils, of hair and scales that flash like buried treasure. Embracing the current, I let trails of seaweed run through my hands, feel the wisps of memories fade away. I pause for a moment as the shoal once again spirals around me, glittering yellow with delicate stripes of pink, letting the beauty of the fish soothe me.

Diving down, I head farther away from the ship. I know I’ll need to go back, but for now I close my eyes against the velvet slip of the water, its coolness sliding along my skin. This part of the sea is darker, and I welcome being cloaked in an enfolding gloom.

Below me, an eel slinks through the depths, its muscular body only slightly blacker than the water surrounding it.

Go, I tell the creature, and in one inky slither it moves away from me. I sink deeper. Enough for the cold to seep into my bones. Enough for the glint of my tail to be swallowed by the dark.

I feel the pull of a current, and for a moment, I consider letting it take me, but then I remember the ship and I tip my face toward the surface, toward the sun and the domain of humans who breathe air. I swim up once again, my task fresh in my mind as I see the wooden hull of the ship plowing through the ocean. I’m reluctant to drift too close in case I am seen by humankind; instead I lurk in the midnight shade of the sea, the bellies of the great whites gleaming above me. They glide closer, flat obsidian eyes and teeth ready. I shudder, turning away from their large bodies as they track the ship, even though I am doing the same as they are. We both seek those that enter our domain.

As the creak of the ship echoes in the deep, I stroke the gold chain that hangs heavy around my neck, its links cold against my sink. My fingers move over the sapphire that gleams in the murk.

And then, there it is, the water crashing and hissing with the force of a body entering. Bubbles rise and pop, leaving only the descent of splayed limbs and crimson-stained skin. I swim faster as a shark darts forward. Blood curls in the sea, red ribbons unspooling in the deep. Pushing my way upward, I try to ignore the copper tang in the water as I swim between the gray-and-white creatures.

Wait, I command them as the body sinks. They circle impatiently, black eyes flashing. I turn to the person, catching a glimpse of their unseeing eyes and an open mouth, bruised and swollen.

A woman, her skin a dark brown in the water. Black tufts of hair wave in the current, revealing more wounds on the side of her face. She spins slowly, and something in the line of her body speaks to me. There was no easy death here, I think, closing my eyes briefly. But then there never is.

As I take hold of a hand the same size as mine, rage swells at the thought of another death that the sea will hide. The woman’s body knocks against me as I hold her close, closer, until her hair intertwines. Cupping her chin, I look at her face and pause.

The tilt of her mouth is familiar, with generous lips framed by full cheeks. Her hair floats free from rows of the kọ‘lẹ´sẹ‘ style, black tendrils that I want to touch, to neaten. I look again and a memory stirs. She reminds me of . . . I try to focus, to tease the edges out, but it will not come and the sharks glide closer. They will only listen to me for so long.

My gaze rakes over the woman once more, but the feeling of familiarity has passed. I let it go and remind myself that it doesn’t matter. It is better this way, I think, echoing the words of Yemoja. To not remember who I was before. Leaning closer, I focus on the small glow that emanates from the woman’s chest, just above her heart. I reach for the swirl of gold that grows brighter as it breaks free from her body. When my fingertips touch the essence, I close my eyes in preparation.

“Mo gbà yín. Ní àpéjọ, ìwọ yóò rí ìbùkún nípasẹ‘ẹ Ìyá Yemoja tí yóo ṣe ìrọ‘rùn ìrìn àjò rẹ. Kí Olodumare mú ọ dé ilé ní àìléwu àti àláfíà,” I say, and then repeat the prayer that will glean the woman’s soul. “I welcome you. Gathered, you will be blessed by Mother Yemoja, who will ease your journey. May Olodumare take you home to safety and peace. Come forth.”

The warmth of the woman’s life floods my mind. I see her as a child, laughing when she winds her arms around the neck of her mother. Then she’s older, eyes alight with a different kind of love as she holds out a bowl of rice and peppered catfish. With shining dark skin and a wide smile, the man before her is beautiful. I feel her heart lift as he takes the food and their fingers brush. Later, she’s tilling a small field next to a village. Fingers sprinkling seeds into the grooves she’s created in the earth, as she sings a song to Oko, the orisa of crops. Her voice is sweet and high, rising with the heat of the day. And then she’s holding a baby with the same grin as hers. She presses her face into the folds of the girl’s neck, inhaling the child’s milky scent. I smile, feeling all the jubilation she has felt and the love that fills her soul.

When I open my eyes, the woman’s essence hovers in the cradle of my fingers. I focus on the joy in her memories as I coax forth her soul, guiding it toward the sapphire of my necklace. The stone absorbs her essence, growing warm against the hollow of my throat. I hold the images of the woman’s life in my mind and wonder if the village she came from still stands. If her people continue to wait for her, checking the horizon every day to see if she will return.

Tatters of her wrapper drift in the water, a faded orange that was once as bright as the midafternoon sun. I look down at the hand still in mine, with its torn pale nails and jagged scars. She will receive Yemoja’s blessing before she returns to Olodumare; it is the one thing I am able to do for her.

May you be at peace, sister. Yemoja will ease your journey back home.

Releasing the woman’s fingers, I turn away, not watching as her body sinks into the depths.

A daughter, a wife, a mother.

My tears join the salt of the sea.

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