Undertow by Michael Buckley

Undertow is an interesting animal: Part social statement full of big ideas and part teen YA urban fantasy, the book changes greatly in tone from the first to second part. What started original and a bit gritty quickly devolved into a frothy pilot for a CW Network tv show, prepared to air between Vampire Diaries and Arrow. It’s an easy read and engaging, though, and certainly it is one of the few palatable mermaid stories.

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Growing up in inner city New York is never going to be easy; but when thousands of mer people show up on the shores of Coney Island as illegal immigrants, the whole situation gets a lot more real. For the US is divided: integrate the prickly refugees into society or force them back into the sea. 16 year old Lyric Walker is at the center of the problem: her school is chosen as an experiment in integration and she is forced to shepherd the Alpha people’s young prince, Fathom, around her school. The problem is, the anti-Alpha are quite militant and willing to kill any who interact with the mer people. Combined with a terrible secret Lyric’s family is hiding, things are about to get a whole lot worse for Lyric and Fathom than simple school harassment.

The first half of the book was inspired by the 1960s rational tensions of the Little Rock Nine – integrating blacks into a white high school. Think Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We All Live With” and you’ll get an idea.  Angry mobs, grandstanding politicians, harassment and threats – a typical New York day, perhaps? Author Buckley smartly keeps the action focused around Lyric – her past of drugs and partying, teen rebellion and just fitting in. If that doesn’t jive with the wholesomeness of the cop father and artistic mother in a very loving family, one can let it go for the smoothness of the storytelling. The plot is very much biting social commentary about the world in which we live and simple acceptance of one another.

Then the second half of the story kicks in and it is pure YA urban fantasy romance. Girl staring at glistening pecs at a pool, hormones out of control, hunky main lead prince (saving her), unique snowflake heroine, and a lot of posturing and deus ex machina to keep them apart even though they are so in love with each other. It felt like I was reading a different book; the grounded realism and big ideas of the first half morphing into over the top ‘feels’ and questionable logic of a mid level YA romance. It felt like two different authors wrote each portion of the book.

Yet, despite the schizophrenic plotting, it was an enjoyable book to read. The language is simple and writing easy to follow. Lyric’s flawed tough NYC girl persona is engaging and the mer people story, if a bit less interesting, is different in that they show up as refugees and not invaders. The author has spent time well in creating the mer people world and making it distinct. But admittedly, the characters felt a bit flat – more ideas than grounded people with realistic emotions. The mer people especially were walking boards with very two dimensional thinking processes. Add in a snarky best friend, perfect parents, and you recognize the CW TV show formula quickly. Veronica Mars Lyric isn’t, however.

So yes, I am a bit ambivalent on how much I liked the story. I can easily give it a 4 star rating because the first half was strong (I was greatly reminded of another gritty urban fantasy set in NYC, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera). It was great to see a YA title not set in the urban suburbs. But at the same time, the inexplicable change in the second half of the book to mustache twirling bad guys, misunderstood hero, heroine needing to be rescued, and a rather silly romance was a bit of a let down. It didn’t feel real at all. I expect the next book will be consistent in tone however – with the emphasis on this book’s second half.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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