Mermaid Fantasy Tale Skin of the Sea, from Natasha Bowen

A mermaid wearing gold jewelry watches from the cover of Natasha Bowen's Skin of the Sea.

A crop from the cover of Sea skin; see full coverage, including the mermaid tail, below!
Picture: Random House Books for Young Readers

When a Mermaid saves a human life, she is certainly not hailed as a heroine – she is marked with terrible punishment for breaking an ancient law designed to protect his genre. In this vein, Nigerian-Welsh author Natasha Bowen has drawn on West African mythology to create his fantastic debut, Sea skin, and io9 gets a first look at one of the book’s most exciting encounters.

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

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

Simi prayed to the gods once. Now, she serves them as Mami Wata, a mermaid, gathering the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their return journey.

But when a living boy is thrown overboard, Simi does the unthinkable – she saves her life, going against an old decree. And retribution awaits those who dare to challenge it.

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

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

Here is an overview of the full coverage; the artist is Jeff Manning and the artistic direction is Regina Flath.

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

Picture: Random House Books for Young Readers

And finally, here’s an exclusive clip revealing a pivotal scene from chapter six of Sea skin.


A figure emerges from the sea. Yemoja stops, her hair a black cape around her shoulders, curls sparkling under her crown, pointy and golden and shining in the sun. She walks on the beach, her cape forming perfect white and indigo folds, each sinuous movement pulling her closer to us.

“Do like me,” I whispered, bending my knees, looking down and almost pressing my forehead into the hot sand. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry. There is movement next to me as Kola bends her waist into a bow.

“Don’t speak unless Yemoja asks or I ask you to.”

Dark brown toes reach into the white sand in front of me as the scent of violets and coconut almost overwhelms me. I look up, past muscular legs, past the crisp white of the cape, edged with indigo and crossed with delicate gold threads, to a thick necklace of bulbous pearls.

“Simidèle? “

Just the weakness of his tone doesn’t make me want to lift my head to face the orisa. But I do. Her veil is swinging, her mouth a slice of full lips, pinched in a line. I look up higher at the flash of her eyes, which sparkle in a shade of hard silver.

“What’s the significance of this, my daughter?” Yemoja asks, turning her head to look at Kola.

Next to me, the boy is standing, wiping the sand off his palms on the tattered wrapper tied around his waist. He looks at me and I clear my throat, pressing my trembling fingers against my sides. At least he’s not already opening his mouth to make requests.

“Mother Yemoja”, I begin, keeping my tone respectful. “Adekola would like to ask for your help. He-“

L’orisa holds up her hand, stopping me. Gold rings set with unpolished diamonds and emeralds sparkle on her fingers. She tilts her head to one side. “How did he get here calling me?”

“I saved him.” I lick my lips, tasting the salt. “I pulled it out of the sea.”

Yemoja snaps her head towards me, the pearls of her veil snapping loudly. ” What did you do ? “

“I was about to gather his soul, but…. . he had not yet passed.

The orisa swivels to face me fully. “Have you failed to remember your task?” His words are calm but sharp.

Shaking my head, I carefully phrase my next sentence, trying to keep the growing 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 haven’t forgotten, but I couldn’t let the sea and the sharks claim it. You talk about my goal, but it was living. Leaving him would have meant his death.

Yemoja looks at my legs and the glow of my cloak. “And so you showed yourself to him and brought him here?”

The hiss of his voice makes me wince. I look at Kola and think of his face when he saw the movement of my tail, the scales that have melted into the skin. At the time, I didn’t think so, troubled by the effort of dragging him to some sort of safety. Shame and heat rise and spread over my chest and neck. But then I think of Kola slumped in the sand, the food he ate, and some of the guilt fading away.

The sudden roar of the orisa causes me to stumble backwards in the sand, losing my balance so that I fall violently. My heart slams against the wrapper tight against my chest as I curl up in front of her. Yemoja raises her hands to the sky, fingernails like talons as she screams again. Kola clenches her ears as the cry grows louder, piercing the air. I hear the waves crashing against the rocks of the cove, and when I dare to look up at her, Yemoja looks at me, a wall of water behind her. The blue mass sparkles, its weight held by the orisa. For a moment, I think she’s going to let go, hitting the beach and us. I glance at Kola, forcing him to move closer to me. He would never survive.

“Mother Yemoja,” I said, raising my hand, palm up. “Please. When he is healed, I can take him to the mainland and no one else will need to know.

Orisa shudders, obsidian hair cascading over her shoulders in a heavy mass as she looks at me. Yemoja wobbles, the cord muscles in her arms tensed as she holds her fists high above her head. She stares at me, her lips twisted in a snort, but in her eyes there’s a glimmer of fear.

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

The orisa stares at me in silence for seconds that have stretched out longer than I ever thought possible. And then she lowers her hands and behind her, the water falls, coming back into the bay. I take a deep breath, checking that Kola is still nearby. Her shoulders are hunched, but her eyes are sharp and vigilant. Yemoja’s fingers contract and the sea becomes calm again. Her shoulders drop as she turns away from us.

“You don’t. . . “But the orisa didn’t finish until it staggered and then collapsed to the ground.

Yemoja is sitting in the white sand, her cloak spread out around her like the petals of the flowers we pick to summon her. Her face is tilted towards her knees, wraps a dark shroud that protects her from my gaze.

“Simidele,” she said softly, looking at me through her hair. Her veil shines, strands of iridescent pearls that are intricately drawn on her nose and cheeks. A tear slips under the milky orbs. “What you have done will mean our death. “


Extract Sea skin by Natasha Bowen reprinted with permission. Copyright Random House Books for young readers.

Sea skin by Natasha Bowen is released on November 2; you can order a copy here.


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