16 June 2015

Undertow by Michael Buckley

A while back, I read THE VICIOUS DEEP trilogy, a YA fantasy/adventure take on the whole merfolk thing. Since I was a child I’ve always been fascinated with merfolk. So when I heard about UNDERTOW, which seemed to offer a new take on it, I made sure to check it out.

When I examined the jacket copy more closely, though, I was given pause: it sounded an awful lot like TWILIGHT. Female protagonist with whimsical name: check. High school of horrors: check. Thrust together with a sexy paranormal being who she will no doubt argue with and then fall madly in love with: check.

Disclaimer: I do not hate TWILIGHT. It’s just not my cup of tea. Paranormal romance is not a genre I seek out or enjoy. However, I’m always interested in seeing genre tropes subverted, and I was willing to give UNDERTOW a chance.

The good: it definitely brought some new things to the table. First among those was a pretty serious allegory about racial inequality, as the Alpha—the merfolk of the story—are forced to integrate into the New York City high school our heroine, Lyric Walker, attends. It brought to mind the National Guard being called in first to prevent the desegregation of Arkansas schools (at the order of Governor Orval Faubus) and then, after President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, to instead enforce the desegregation.

More good: UNDERTOW had great secondary characters. Lyric’s best friends Bex and Tito grounded Lyric’s story even as the shadowy government forces thrust her together with Fathom, the aforementioned Sexy Paranormal Being.

Even more good: The Alpha aren’t all beautiful. They’re as vastly different from each other as the creatures of the sea are. And they had a fascinating culture built up for them.

Yet more good: The story packs some good emotional punches and explores some real problems.

The ending had a pretty nice set piece, too, with an epic battle on the Coney Island shore.

However: In the end, it felt like it was retreading a lot of ground.

Despite all the crazy-awesome Alpha to choose from, Fathom, the Sexy Paranormal Being, was mostly normal-looking, conventionally handsome even though he had retractable blades in his arms. And the romance between him and Lyric played out pretty much exactly how I expected it to.

I had a hard time getting into Lyric’s head. Her voice seemed awfully whiny. Part of that is probably because of the severe overuse of the dialogue tag I cry. In fact, there’s a serious problem with dialogue tags throughout. I opened to a random page. Just from Lyric’s tags, I get:

I say.
I explain.
I say defensively. 
I plead.

It was hard for me to ignore.

In the end, I didn’t really like UNDERTOW, but I didn’t actively dislike it, either. It definitely wasn’t for me, though.