“Mother of the Sea” by Zetta Elliott

Mother of the Sea is another one-sitting read I completed a couple weeks ago. I forgot why I decided to read it then, probably because I wanted something quick, but I bought the book after seeing it featured in this booktube video.


YA fantasy; Historical fiction



Goodreads summary:

When her village is raided, a teenage girl finds herself on a brutal journey to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. Her only comfort is a small child who clings to her for protection. But once they board the slave ship, the child reveals her rebellious nature and warns that her mother — a fierce warrior — is coming to claim them all. (Goodreads)

My thoughts:

“When the skinless men leave, the taste of salt lingers on her lips.”

So begins this short story about a young girl who is abducted from her village to be sold into slavery and endures the brutal journey across the Atlantic with the help of a mischievous child. At just 46 pages, this story moves quickly and details are used economically but efficiently. At no time did I think the story underdeveloped or was the impact and significance of it lost on me.

We immediately get a sense of how much the protagonist’s life changed when her village was attacked and she was captured. She was on the cusp of womanhood then, but the arrival of the invaders robbed her of the time to appreciate that transition. Instead, she was exposed to harsh circumstances that made her hide her blossoming features to survive. Shackled and driven like chattel, she was cooped in a dark, dank cell with other women who were preyed on by their captors, who often left the women “badly bruised, and broken inside.” The protagonist barely manages to hold onto her innocence — and to the small child whom she grips close to her chest.

It’s a harrowing experience that only gets worse once the girl boards a ship to cross the Middle Passage. Elliott provides just enough details for the reader to understand how horrible such a journey was for slaves: stacked like goods and unable to move in the bowels of the ship; stacked atop each other so that the excrement of those above trickles down to those below; only allowed on deck a few times where the women are preyed on by the sailors. I kept wondering how such a story would end. What would become of the girl? Does this story lead to the Americas or another fate? How is the fantastical element worked in?

Well, how it wraps up was totally unexpected, but I liked it. It’s a mermaid story that includes the Yoruba deity Yemoja (or Yemaya in the Americas), a water spirit. Elliott began working on this mermaid story in 2012, when she began researching her Caribbean roots. She later further developed the story when she was commissioned “to write a science fiction/fantasy narrative for an eighth-grade English Language Arts curriculum.” Her intention with this story is not only to teach about the Middle Passage, but to provide a strong Black heroine for teens:

“When teens in the U.S. look for a Black woman superhero, their options are fairly limited; I hope Yemoja can stand alongside Storm as a symbol of African female power.”

I liked the story for several reasons:

  • The historical significance
  • The development of the protagonist and that we don’t learn her name until the end
  • For showing that children have power
  • For showing that a young girl can start a rebellion
  • The presence of the Yoruba diety

But despite these reasons, or maybe because of them, I was disappointed at how short the story is and wished it was longer. The story sparked my interest and made me want to know more, want to know what happens next. It made me want to go find another similar story to read.

Overall: ★★★☆☆ ½

I recommend it and think it’s worth a read, whether or not you are interested in YA fantasy.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

But if it’s not at your library, or if you LOVE the cover like me, then totally Buy it. It’s only $7, but even so I was a bit pissed when I got it and saw how thin it is. It probably has under 60 pages total.


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