I’ve openly complained about how getting too aggressive with this year’s reading challenges has prevented me from doing much mood reading. But with this book, Bingo has led to another winner. I read Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water last year and generally enjoyed it. I thought it tried to do too much, and had some structural and pacing issues as a result, but it was easy to read, had a strong sisterly relationship at its heart, and had plenty to say about the world as we know it today. But I read a whole lot of books, and “generally enjoyed it” isn’t ordinarily enough to send the sequel up my list. This year, however, I was scrambling to finish my sequel-themed Bingo card, and I’d heard good things about A Chorus Rises, and it was only 260 pages, so I decided to give it a read.
A Song Below Water followed Tavia Phillips—a siren in an America that’s deeply prejudiced against sirens—and her sister. But while A Chorus Rises feels in many ways like a direct sequel, it does not. Rather, it follows Naema, a social media influencer, mean girl, (non-siren) magic Black girl, and more than once an antagonist in A Song Below Water. I won’t spoil the first book, but while A Chorus Rises is billed as a standalone in the same universe, it opens with Naema in the aftermath of a story where she was cast as the villain, and it’s hard to imagine it having the same impact for a reader who doesn’t come in with at least a pretty robust plot summary from the previous book.
While there’s no lack of plot or commentary on real world distinctions, if you’re going to enjoy A Chorus Rises, you’re going to have to like spending a lot of time on character study (a relative lot of time—the whole book is still just 260 pages long), as it is in many ways a character study of Naema. And you’re going to have be okay with an extremely online lead who is not always sympathetic. But personally, I found the decision to switch perspectives to an antagonist from the first book to be a fascinating choice, and it paid off in spades. Morrow lets Naema make mistakes and doesn’t force character development before its time. As a result, Naema becomes a robust and intriguing character who feels like she could walk right off the page. I admit to not knowing a ton about influencers, so I may not be the perfect judge of whether certain traits are realistic or exaggerated, but regardless, Naema remains complex and interesting, with an arrogance that doesn’t magically disappear as she develops deeper and deeper understanding of how her actions affect the wider world, but that does wane and reshape as her character grows.
Some of the mistakes Naema makes will strike the reader as obvious, but her flaws are established thoroughly enough that it feels true to the character—obvious they may be, but they aren’t mere artifice in service of the plot. Though they certainly do serve the plot, which takes a while to develop as Naema retreats for more than half the book to a family reunion several states away from the locus or the action, but which comes together for a thrilling finish with unmistakable application to contemporary society. There are times late in the book when I feel that Naema might be a little too talented in certain regards, but it makes for a story that finishes strong, and it’s hard to complain much given the amount of page time spent developing her weaknesses.
Interspersed with Naema’s first-person narrative are media clippings—whether from newspapers or social media—that serve to round out her perspective and provide a wider view of the state of affairs. I found these very effective, although there were threads that I expected to tie back into the main narrative a little more than they actually did. Strengthening those ties could’ve added richness to the tale, but the story as it was already had plenty of depth. Its messages may not have been subtle, but they were nuanced, with great care taken to examine flawed characters and unintended consequences to their actions.
Overall, my critiques are minor, and a fascinating study of a former antagonist combined with an entertaining plot and incisive social commentary make A Chorus Rises the best YA fantasy I’ve read in months.
Recommended if you like: YA fantasy, character studies with moral complexity, social commentary, Black representation.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Revenge-Seeking Character, and it’s also First-Person Perspective and a 2021 Release.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.