Setting Study: A Song Below Water

The novel A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow, is a YA urban fantasy story revolving around two young women living in Portland, Oregon. The novel creates lore that takes some liberties with real-world mythos to create a story about race and about being unashamed of one’s identity.

The novel’s main allure in regards to its setting is its mythos. With a lack of standalone magic and a focus on the fantastical entities that populate the world, A Song Below Water may be better characterized as paranormal. However, there are no werewolves or vampires or Fae. Rather, they are replaced with the likes of sirens, sprites, gargoyles, and elokos.

Beyond the adjustments made to account for the magical beings, the setting takes place in an otherwise realistic present-day USA. The main characters go to school, participate in Ren faires, and confront racism on both a micro and macro scale.

Before I go in more depth, as usual, warning: spoilers abound.

The Mythical Populations

When it comes to lore and presence on the page, sirens and elokos are the most prevalent. However, the book also features troublesome sprites, a gargoyle, the concept of oracles (though they no longer exist), and gorgons.

Sirens

According to A Song Below Water‘s lore, sirens are able to use their voices to compel people into action. In fact, there are two specific calls that Tavia, one of the main characters and the book’s resident siren, knows at the beginning of the book: Compel and Appeal. The exact nature of the two calls are not well-defined, as Tavia cannot use any calls without revealing herself. Presumably, Compel is a forced action and Appeal is a forced thought.

Sirens are also inexplicably black females–even for topics as controversial as sirens, in-world characters do not have complete access to or knowledge of the history of mythical folk. Unfortunately, in addition to the racial element, the nature of their calls make sirens a target, especially since sirens used their voices in the protests during the Civil Rights Movement. At present, there exists a device called a dampening collar that sirens are required to wear to prevent them from using their calls on people. One such siren, TV star, is Lexi on a Leash, and it’s clear from the start that the show is just meant to normalize the idea of silencing sirens’ voices–both their siren call and their normal speech.

Interestingly, sirens are also able to communicate in some capacity to their dead. Throughout the book, Tavia is trying to get into contact with her recently-deceased grandmother, who she will supposedly be able to hear near some unknown body of water. Her grandmother eventually teaches her a third call, Awaken, which seem to bring people to their natural form–both in the case of Tavia’s friend/sister, Effie when she finally turns into her gorgon state and also with the characters that were turned to stone.

Elokos

Elokos seem to have powers parallel to sirens, and they are connected to the siren population in a few different ways. Unlike sirens, elokos are well-known for their charm. It is not seen in a bad light; they’re often the favorite students in class and can get away with many things that others wouldn’t be able to. Their voices also have a certain amount of power, though they cannot force anyone to do anything like sirens can. An eloko’s voice can mask a siren’s call, allowing sirens to use their magic without actually harming anyone.

Presumably, elokos are also passed down generationally, though if there are any restrictions to it, it is unstated. They carry with them a charm that can play their own personal tune, though it is considered somewhat intimate for an eloko to share their charm with another. Beyond that, the only information shared about them is that there is an in-world myth that elokos bite people, that it is in some way connected to cannibalism, though most people are aware that it is a false myth.

Sprites

Little is shared about sprites. They are troublesome entities that seem only to bother children. They cause all sorts of mischief, misplacing items, generally only causing minor stirs while being something of a pest. However, it is believed for most of the book that the sprites were capable of turning children to stone.

Gargoyles

Gargoyles are creatures carved from a master stoneworker that come to life. They are guardian figures, massive stone entities that are capable of perching on rooftops without making them cave in. It is later revealed that gargoyles can take a human form, and even magic clothing over their skin if they know the clothing in question well enough. Gargoyles can fly, and the gargoyle in the narrative can carry two people at the same time while doing so. They can even “soften” their stone skin. The gargoyles are said to be incredibly rare.

Gorgons

Although the narrative is generally consistent on information both known and unknown, one of the more frustrating elements of the setting is that it’s unclear what mythical creatures exist in the world beyond those that play a prominent role. There are no mention of werewolves or vampires–not even to say if such creatures are definitively unreal–no dragons…. In some fashion, it works for and with the story. Effie has to figure out what she is, and it would not be compelling if it was easy for her to find the answers. Additionally, many mythical folk tend to hide their identities. For some, gargoyles might not be thought of as real, and even gorgons, which Effie turns out to be, are so rare that everyone believes they died out same as oracles did.

Still, it would have been helpful to establish some rules as to what mythical entities we could expect to exist. Effie plays a mermaid in the Ren Faire, and there is a short time where she thinks perhaps she is a mermaid in real life as well. Without established rules, it’s difficult for the reader to write off, the way Effie did, that she could actually be a mermaid; if sirens exist, why not mermaids too?

In the end, of course, it’s revealed she is a gorgon. In the novel’s setting, gorgons have snake tails rather than a mermaid’s fish fins, and their hair can move on their own. Unlike the original myth, gorgons do not turn everyone to stone; they do it at will, or else in times of great emotional stress. Effie’s father lives in some sort of strange ethereal world that is never fully explained, but they can breathe underwater in their gorgon forms, essentially merging the mermaid/gorgon myth.

Culture

Siren Network

For the siren population to live out their lives and minimize risk of exposure, they have established a small, country-wide network of people who are sworn to keep their secrets and help them in any way they can. Due to the nature of eloko magic, elokos are often part of the network, though non-magical people are willing to help as well.

Tavia uses the network when she finds herself using her call on a police officer at an illegal traffic stop, in an attempt to find out if she’s in danger. But the person she asks, an eloko named Naema, has grown antagonistic towards Tavia and proves unhelpful. Still, Naema is written as the exception rather than the norm, her jealousy dangerously getting the better of her.

Traditions of the Dead

It was a passing mention in the story, but there is a traditional form of burial for sirens. Not all sirens are willing to do it, as it is specific to their culture and mythos and as a result outs their identity. However, unsurprisingly, it has to do with the water. The funerals are generally unattended, as it could also out any potential sirens that arrive.

Sign Language

Although this seems to be Tavia-specific, she and her sister, Effie, use sign language as a means of communicating. When Tavia is frustrated or afraid, her magic builds in her throat so that whatever she says verbally would likely come out as a siren call. She hides behind a disorder so no one questions her sometimes-inability to speak, and then she and Effie use sign language whenever words fail them. Inclusion of sign language showed the main characters’ ability to problem-solve, especially in regards to a realistic problem for them.

Conclusion

On the subject of mythical entities, especially ones that tend to be frequently used, it’s important to blend the original mythos with newness that is unique to this story. Morrow did that well, especially with the sirens, sprites, and elokos. While I think the story could have benefited from some more groundwork, differentiating between what could be real and what most certainly isn’t, Morrow was still precise in detailing much of the mythos of those fantastical beings that do appear.


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