Last week, I did a setting study of the urban fantasy novel A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. Today, we return to it to study its pacing. The novel is relatively short in length–my hardback copy is 286 pages long–and it is divided up into a neat 20 chapters.
Before we get too far into the study, I did want to mention what is happening in Portland, Oregon (which is where the novel takes place) at the present date. In the United State as a whole, news coverage over the BLM protests has become practically nonexistent, but it’s important to know they are still happening. To be honest, the behavior of most news outlets today is absolutely disgusting. With Minneapolis (where George Floyd was murdered) moving to defund the police, coverage of protests faded as the news suggested George Floyd’s murder had come to something of a happy ending.
But the problem is not just with Minneapolis. It’s systemic. And while I feel it’s not my place to speak about these things, I do insist on taking the opportunity to remind people that the fight isn’t over just because we’re no longer hearing about it. It’s troubling that the news isn’t covering Portland, and how federal officers are using unmarked cars to arrest peaceful protestors and take them to an unknown location. Can you imagine how terrifying that would be? People in heavy-duty gear detaining you, shoving you into a car and you don’t know where you’re going? If it is allowed to remain unchecked, there is nothing protecting peaceful protestors from meeting some “accident,” and no way to hold these unnamed, unknown officers accountable.
I’ll leave my sources and some follow-up links for you in the resources section down below. Don’t let this get shoved under the rug, or else in another six months, we’ll be hearing about another fatal police shooting on the news. Nothing will change unless those in the majority culture continue to educate themselves, refuse to let the bias of the news outlets sway their opinion, and help bring light to the battle that continues to quietly rage.
So, take a look at the resources below. Learn about what’s happening. And then come back to my post. As for the story-beat study, warning: spoilers abound.
If you read my setting study on I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, you would know that its general conflict trajectory followed the traditional climb, peak, then fall of the resolution. However, the novel was something of an adventure story, the two main characters trying to get from one point to another. For A Song Below Water, it is more a story of uncovering. Tavia has her siren secret, and Effie, her gorgon mystery.
Both are woven into the narrative so that events revolving around their prospective identities causes conflict at various intervals in the story, even relatively early on. Likewise, external conflicts are tied tightly to both girls, so that even when their personal conflicts are not at the forefront, there is some level of tension throughout. For Tavia, it’s the identity of other sirens–a murdered black girl, Rhoda Taylor, who is declared to be a siren and whose murderer gets off the charge as a result, and beauty guru Camilla Fox, a famous YouTuber who announces she is also a siren and pledges to be at the protest. For Effie, it’s the question of her absentee father and his connection to the Ren Faire that she loves so much, and the sprites that she thinks are connected to people being turned to stone.
Although the girls’ lives are tightly bound together, their respective conflicts tend to happen separately as both of them try to handle things on their own. To do the study, I’ll go into each the pacing of each girl’s storyline.
Tavia the Siren
The story progresses sporadically for Tavia. She wants to be proud of her identity, but her father’s biggest fear is that someone will find out. Anything related to sirens, Tavia is supposed to completely ignore. Yet the novel opens up with news coverage that a recently murdered black girl, Rhoda Taylor, was rumored to be a siren. And, because sirens of the recent past are always black women, Tavia not only has to secretly weather her own sense of loss and betrayal at the world’s sudden reaction to Taylor’s death, she also finds herself faced with some inappropriate questions from her classmates.
The tension spikes suddenly in Chapter 7, however, when Tavia is pulled over by a pair of cops despite having done nothing wrong. Terrified, humiliated, and angry, she unleashes her siren call on one of the officers. In the aftermath, she reaches out to Naema, who is part of her protective siren circle–people who are not sirens yet know that she is and swear to help protect her when needed–to ask if her cover is blown.
Naema is a difficult character to understand, and it’s really one of the few problems I had with the novel. Her character motivations are sketchy at best. She insists that she has better things to do than cause trouble with Tav and Effie, and yet she seems to be in the middle of everything. Tavia’s quasi-ex boyfriend, Priam, is involved to some degree, as Naema is dating him now, but as a character who comes across as cocky, it made little sense that she would be so insecure that she would go out of her way to literally put Tavia in danger.
Naema refuses to offer any aid, despite the fact that she was voluntarily part of this siren network. Tavia gets a little boost in self-confidence when she warns Naema off, but that high is quickly torn down when Rhoda Taylor’s murderer is publically announced as not guilty. Tavia bitterly thinks how it’s not illegal to kill sirens.
We do get a slight reprieve in her storyline as she finally gets into contact with her deceased grandmother and learns the Awake call. But that event is quickly followed by the awful protest, where Camilla Fox is present to show solidarity to the community and Tavia witnesses the police come out in force and later collar her so her siren call can’t be used.
They come home from the rally, and the girls’ guardians split them apart. The reason? Effie’s own mystery.
Effie the Gorgon
While the Effie plotline does not offer a smooth conflict map either, the mystery of her own identity helps even out the conflict made from Tavia’s own problems. While Tavia’s plotline has three main events to propel the story, the ever-present grief of losing her mom and wondering about her dad, as well as the strange things that continue to happen around her, propels the story even when little is happening for Tavia.
EFfie’s character is forever marked by an event that happened when she was young, when all of her friends became petrified stone and she was the “sole survivor” of the park incident. It has haunted her, a fact that isn’t helped by the strange gorgon things that is happening around her that she doesn’t yet understand.
While she deals with some conflict early on, riding out the Rhoda Taylor news with her “sister,” Effie’s major breakthrough in tension is when, after dealing with a class full of fake-woke people discussing the breaking Rhoda Taylor news, Effie is paired with classmate and an actually-nice eloko, Isabella. Someone recognizes Effie as “park girl” and Isabella helps rescue her from that conversation, leading Effie to take Isabella to the park in repayment while simultanously beginning their project.
At the park they meet some really creepy sprites that imply that they were not responsible for the children being turned to stone, that Effie had done it. Then Effie has a black-out. Over the next several chapters of hers, she spends time with Wallace, weathers her sister’s problems, deals with Ren Faire stuff, and all the while, things continue to happen to Effie that just aren’t natural.
Things don’t go downhill again until just after the protest. More people have been turned to stone, although Tav and Effie both know Effie isn’t responsible for several of them at the very least. Yet the girls are split up, and Effie is not allowed to leave the house as Mama Theo, one of her guardians, is afraid she’ll continue to be a danger to people.
The Siren Call
Tavia does some research and finally realizes that Effie is a gorgon. Effie manages to go to prom, where Tavia uses the Awake call to transform her. Effie’s love of water, her hair going crazy, people being turned to stone, is all explained. Chaos reigns at the high school while Naema outs Tavia as a siren and Effie’s gorgon transformation freaks everyone out.
Effie’s guardian, a gargoyle who is apparently also Wallace, takes the two girls to safety at the Ren Faire grounds. They meet Effie’s father, a fellow gorgon who has been trying to reach out to Effie and bring her into the gorgon life in a questionable way. With Tavia speaking reason in Effie’s ear, she’s hesitant to trust him, yet still curious, of course.
Tavia’s grandmother also reaches out again, and she learns the true nature of the Awake siren call. Bringing Effie with her, Tavia uses the call on all of the petrified people and Awake brings them back to life, no longer stone. The story ends with Effie deciding to spend some time with her father and also just lying low, knowing people will likely be as afraid of gorgons as they are of sirens. Yet Tavia is also using the good publicity of waking up the petrified people to speak on sirens’ behalf, and the ending is overall hopeful.
The plot score is 8/10.
What’s interesting about A Song Below Water is that, unlike I’m Not Dying With You Tonight, it doesn’t try to be a tense page-turner. It’s not exactly slow, especially with the four main sources of conflict paired with a relatively short amount of narrative space, but it focuses less on the action and more on the characters. It is more a celebration of identity, about refusing to be ashamed of oneself.
The pacing never seems to drag, which is something of an impressive feat considering the spiky nature of the conflict map. I also think it had some really poignant moments discussing racial tension in America without ever sounding preachy. Overall, I was really impressed with the novel.
It does stumble in two places. Firstly, Naema’s roughly-sketched character makes it difficult to pin down her motivations. Without understanding why she’s doing what she does, it does add a certain synthetic feel to the plot, like she’s just there to generate conflict rather than allow for a more natural display of conflict from two established characters who simply want contradictory things. Secondly, the nature of Effie’s father and his promise to Effie’s mom is likewise a little shaky. Why he turned people to stone and why everyone went through so much effort to keep him from Effie similarly takes away from her plotline. And the question of his trustworthiness isn’t answered by the end of the novel, tainting the somewhat too-happy ending.
The failings are small enough that they barely distract from the story. If you haven’t read it yet, this is one I would recommend.
Use of unmarked vehicles in Portland, Oregon: https://www.npr.org/2020/07/17/892277592/federal-officers-use-unmarked-vehicles-to-grab-protesters-in-portland
Defunding the police in Minneapolis: https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/26/884149659/minneapolis-council-moves-to-defund-police-establish-holistic-public-safety-forc
A compilation of Twitter threads for recommendations of books written by BIPOC and queer authors: https://twitter.com/i/events/1274705404308492300
Kimberly Jones’s poignant speech about social contracts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llci8MVh8J4
Use of Homeland Security officers against protestors: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/facing-unrest-on-american-streets-trump-turns-homeland-security-powers-inward/2020/07/21/655e7822-cb71-11ea-89ce-ac7d5e4a5a38_story.html