A Chorus Rises – Book Review

Bethany C. Morrow is back with her new book, A Chorus Rises, a brilliant follow-up to her modern fantasy masterpiece A Song Below Water, that not only expands on its predecessor’s messaging, but once again dazzles us with Bethany’s remarkable skill as a storyteller. With an incredible main character and a blistering commentary, A Chorus Rises strikes that perfect balance between entertaining and socially responsible.

Here’s the summary…

Teen influencer Naema Bradshaw has it all: she’s famous, privileged, has “the good hair”— and she’s an Eloko, a person who’s gifted with a song that woos anyone who hears it. Everyone loves her — well, until she’s cast as the awful person who exposed Tavia’s secret siren powers.

Now, she’s being dragged by the media. No one understands her side: not her boyfriend, not her friends, nor her Eloko community. But Naema knows the truth and is determined to build herself back up — no matter what.

When a new, flourishing segment of Naema’s online supporters start targeting black girls, however, Naema must discover the true purpose of her magical voice.

A Song Below Water was one of my favorite books of 2020, the year that was. And I don’t mean Top 50, I mean like out of all the books I read last year (a lot); the story of Tavia and Effie was in the top two or three. That book was my introduction to Bethany C. Morrow who, full disclosure, I have a huge author crush on.

I’ve never met Bethany, probably never will, but I’ve watched enough interviews, panels, and launch events to know that she’s a brilliant person, full of wit, charm, and zeal. Her wicked sense of humor is totally on point, and her passion regarding social upheaval and exposing a country that systematically oppresses/abuses/murders its Black populace, is thoughtful, razor sharp, and inspiring. And being able to bang out compelling fantasy based on those ideals and passions, turning them into a protest song, into her Mississippi Goddamn, well, that’s her magical ability.

So, with her stock on the rise (she has a Little Women remix coming out later this year), Bethany drops A Chorus Rises on us. Being billed as just “in-universe”, it really acts a sequel and the second half of the A Song Below Water duology. The million dollar question is do you have to have read the first book? In my opinion yes, and not just because you’ll be missing important pieces, but because, and again, it’s great. Order A Song Below Water HERE.

In the interest of saving time, I suppose your reaction to A Chorus Rises will depend heavily on your reaction to A Song Below Water. The world-building is the same, they share some of the same characters, and the system(s) of magic are mostly the same, I mean, it’s a companion novel, right?

(record scratch)

Some of you are probably saying, “What world building, aren’t these contemporary novels?” Yes, they are, more so modern fantasies, but one thing we (white people) need to understand is that the reality writers like Bethany must introduce us to is not, in her words, “…the default one that’s normally presented.”

As a Black writer telling a Black story, she has to “build” representation into a narrative that gives us, the reader, an understanding of what reality looks like for her Black characters, contemporary or not. And because she doesn’t use too much (or none at all) referential mythology, she’s assembled her diocese under the assumption that this is a reality that we (white people) have mostly ignored. If that’s not worldbuilding then I don’t know what is.

I wasn’t in the courtyard. I was nowhere. I was in the gray.

As the summary states, things post ASBW hasn’t been without its challenges for Eloko influencer Naema Bradshaw. Not only is she having post-traumatic stress over being “stoned” courtesy or gorgon Effie, but as things move along, she is confronted with some perverse fans called the #KnightsofNaema, who think the only way to honor her is to harm sirens. Oh, and while not all Black women are sirens, all sirens are Black women, something to keep in mind. She’s in therapy and doesn’t want to take the note that says she’s weak, or that shows she should have died. She’s haunted by memories of a muted nothingness (torture for an Eloko), and waking up from that cold memory is the only control she has in those moments.

And now, with the airing of a Tavia/Effie skewed-version-of-events-made-for-TV-movie called Awaken, and the normally loyal Portland turning on her, Naema’s had enough of the Northwest for the time being. So, she leaves Portland for a little R&R, hoping to get away from all the local drama and maybe get a little perspective.

She heads Southwest to stay with her Aunt Carla Ann (her mom’s sister) and her cousins Carmen and Courtney, none of whom she’s seen for many years. Naema learns quickly that there’s just no escaping certain problems nowadays when we’re connected in ways that just don’t allow it, especially if you’re guilty of checking in every five minutes…which she does, much to Courtney’s annoyance. And using the fighter’s fight mantra, she contacts the director of Awaken, Leona Fowl, offering to tell her side of the story, hoping to refute her character assassination.

This overdue family reunion proves to be challenging but enlightening, as she learns ancestral truths that will not only affect her powers, but the course of her life as well. Not to mention, she gains an ally in Courtney who will become one of her most important friends and supporters, and as an aside, turns in one of the books best performances. Here, Bethany leans into the mythology a bit, not only establishing some Eloko tropes, but underscoring the discrimination Eloko and Sirens face, and how there’s a clear intersection between a feigning consternation over magic, and the obvious racist motivations.

The first bits of this book are about Naema trying to stand, but instead stumbles to the ground, metaphorically speaking. And it’s not until she learns to hear her ancestors voices, is when her sure footedness returns. And at that point, this book goes from great, to fly me to the moon. Naema is at her best when she’s both self-aware and well, herself, a strong, smart, beautiful Black woman that moves with grace, style, dignity, and just the right amount of swagger.

So, as things take some (un)expectedly frightening turns, certain truths are revealed about the people behind the #KnightsofNaema and who might be stoking the fires of hate. This all of course leaves a very bad taste in Naema’s mouth, and she can no longer remain on the sidelines…it’s time for action; it’s time to go home. Armed with the voices of her ancestors and forced to find allyship (and forgiveness) in the unlikeliest of places, Naema will discover that her best self has yet to come. And she’ll need to be at her best if she’s going to change the world, or at least Portland. You see, Naema gave them nothing to doubt and yet they did, all while giving them all that she had, well, as Bachman–Turner Overdrive once said, baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Because from the beginning of our lives, we hear a lovely, quite reminder of our beauty and magic.

In the aftermath of ASBW, Naema is screaming for a second life, but not only is no one listening, no one can hear her, because the worst thing that can happen to an Eloko, starts to happen to her. When Naema starts to feel her Eloko song lessening, it’s like a piece of her heart, of her soul, of her very wellbeing goes missing. This is why the stoning, besides the obvious physicality of it, was so distressing to her and difficult to recount, the deafening silence. These bits, where Bethany describes to us what Naema is feeling, the loss, the emptiness, is incredibly profound and emotionally resonant. It’s a beautiful use of language and is some of Bethany’s best stuff, and unless you’re void of all empathy, you need to try and understand this for a moment.

Imagine your whole life you wanted to be a chef, it was your passion, the whole of your being, the thing by which everyone identified you as. So, you worked hard, very hard, you went to school, you bled, you sweat, you cried over the thought of becoming a chef. You travelled the earth trying the world’s cuisines and flavors; you even worked endless hours in dirty shitholes that paid next to nothing to hone your skills.

Finally, it all pays off and you achieve your goals, you’re creating masterpieces at a 5-star restaurant and everyone loves your food, you’re a Michelin Starred chef in the culinary world. Everywhere you go you’re recognized, and everyone calls you Master Chef out of respect. And then, one day, when things couldn’t get any better, without warning, someone cuts out your fucking tongue and chops your goddamn hands off with YOUR branded knife. That’s what happens when an Eloko loses their song, or is suddenly confronted with silence.

And the sooner you realize that the sooner you’ll realize that Naema is an entirely heroic character, not a villain. In fact, she’s no more a villain in her story than Effie and Tavia were in theirs, and I don’t care what Naema did or didn’t do in ASBW. Focus your energy on the real villains, those being the people who directly or indirectly cause, incite, or provoke racism in all its forms. Whether it is systematically or through some perverted white lens, these animals should get the focus of your rage, my god, not a teenage Black girl. And if you find yourself in that camp, the one that sees Naema in need of redemption, well, it might be time for a little self-contemplation.

And there in lies part of Bethany’s genius and why A Chorus Rises is better than its predecessor. Oh, you didn’t like Naema in A Song Below Water? You thought she was a stuck-up bitch and deserved what she got? Well guess what, not only is Ms. Morrow going to write a book about her, but it’s going to be amazing and prove you all wrong, so fuck off. And don’t look for an emancipating streak fulfilling some old ass paradigm just to satisfy a particularly significant part of the plot, no, Naema’s conscience is quite clear.

Both A Song Below Water and A Chorus Rises are crafted very well both in story and message, which can go from outright overt, to figurative at times, without ever missing a beat. Purposeful isn’t slow, and Bethany takes us through the paces with a cadence that is both soothing and ethereal, while casting a sincere intention that I find to be fair, open, and honest, regardless of the outcome of the characters interactions.

When done well, YA fiction, assuming you find a character to identify with, should give you the perspective that you’re not alone. It’s escapism with a lesson, a protest song that hopefully presents real-world issues in a meaningful way, something both of these books excel at, although I give a slight edge to A Chorus Rises.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Understand that I’ve said almost nothing about the second and third acts of this book which are very palatable, and you’ll most certainly want more. Using plenty of mixed media and a contemporary West Coast setting, Bethany perfectly encapsulates what a modern fairy-tale story should look like. It’s normal (sort of) everyday people using their gifts to make the world a better place. If you need an example of that, just take a moment and look, their work is all around us.

Bethany takes a good-faith approach that doesn’t insult your intelligence, unless maybe you’re a racist or something. And her open and completely fair approach to that subject matter may seem obvious, but that’s ONLY after you’ve read the book, the fact is it’s wildly clever so don’t be one of those people that were like, “it’s so fucking obvious what she’s doing”. No, it’s not, so don’t be that person. In fact, relish in the opportunity that’s being presented to you, a book that reads entirely different on the second readthrough, exactly because your perspective has (god willing) changed.

Her writing style is perfectly suited for my sensibility as a reader so in order for any book she releases to not rate high, well, it would have to be bad, like Ready Player Two bad. And I know we’re supposed to look at these things subjectively, and that’s true to a certain extent, but authors should get points for taking the rigid form of storytelling and bending it to their will, she does that.

They always acted like being Eloko means I’m not Black. Or that I don’t want to be.

The contemporary social commentary juxtaposes the ancestral root magic aspects of the book seamlessly and with an obvious impetus. Like I mentioned earlier, the Black experience in America is unique and therefore requires Bethany to present to us in detail that distinction. She’s helping us become more empathetic as a society by introducing us to a people who’ve felt the world pass them by. And because we’ve done almost nothing to stop it, the shame is ours, not theirs, and therefore is on us to fix, not them. But the first step to problem solving is recognizing that there is one, and Bethany is throwing us a bone, again.

Does that mean all the ills of a society long since gone wrong are fixed with the snap of her fingers or the flick of her pen? Of course not, and that’s not the point. Bethany is, by the very definition, here to put forward for discussion or consideration the revulsion that is racism and how to recognize it, even when it is trying to be unrecognizable. Deciding to take action, to fight against a system that stacks the deck takes courage, and that’s what A Chorus Rises is all about…courage.

Courage to be enough for yourself. Courage to face the mob, even after the online community hates you. Courage to fight back, to protest, to take a knee. Courage to love yourself and let others love you back. And as someone who lacks all of the above, Naema Bradshaw is a superhero as far as I’m concerned.

To order a copy of A Chorus Rises or find out what Bethany has planned for its release, click HERE!


BONUS CONTENT – COURTNEY’S TOP TEN LINES

Yes, Cousin Courtney has the gift of gab and can turn a phrase better than most, and much to the chagrin of Naema, it’s rarely helpful, never timely, and usually eye-roll inducing. So, in that spirit, here are the ever-quotable Courtney’s ten best “Corey-isms”…

Jetlagged? Girl, if you don’t. We in the same time zone!

How air-conditioning gonna be little?

Oop, your vibrator’s going off again.

Who serves cold cuts at a reunion, Naema, if you don’t!

Little coulda been a synonym for brief in that context, sorry, I win that one.

I think I speak for everyone when I say we’d definitely like to hear more about how you get to fly around with a gargoyle named Gargy.

Yeah, ‘cause we’ve been here for hours and ain’t nobody fed me yet. Y’all ain’t got no hospitality up north, I know that.

I’m not the kinda Black that goes into police officers’ houses unannounced.

Hi, I’m Courtney, by the way. It just feels like everybody knows everybody. And I ate some of your grapes.

Y’all just do not eat often enough, I feel like I’m being pranked, I swear.