4 out of 5 stars
One goal of books is to transport you to new worlds. So when, on page 2 of Undertow, I squealed, “Ooh, fish people!”, I knew we were off to a good start.
Undertow is a firecracker of a book, the drama going off in your hands the minute you open the cover. It’s the story of present day Coney Island, New York, a seaside town under siege. Living on its beach, behind a military barricade, are the Alpha. They’re basically mermen (and maids) whose culture resembles the Vikings: battle-mad, honor-driven, and loyalty-bound. No one knows why they’re here, but they’re scary and dangerous. Thus the government puts up a wall and turns the beach into a refugee camp. The entire Coney Island area is sealed off – “The Zone” becomes an inhabited piece of New York City alternatively left to fend for itself and experimented on by the outside world.
The experiment is the mixing of the Alpha with humans. It’s to be done by sending Alpha children to the high school where Lyric Walker, and her friends Bex and Shadow, are students. The Zone riots against the idea. It’s violent and visceral: cops and National Guard fight local vigilantes, the NYC Mayor orchestrates a hate-propaganda war. Anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Alpha is attacked, beaten, even killed. Meanwhile, the Alpha fight everyone. As numerous quoted news broadcasts says, the place is about to explode.
Lyric is a scrappy girl. She used to run with a wild crowd, but the world is different now. Plus she has a secret that could cost her her life. So when the principal assigns Lyric to befriend and assimilate Fathom, the Prince of the Alpha, she truly has no choice. Fathom and Lyric form an uneasy truce… which becomes almost an alliance, and then something more. At the same time, Lyric herself is something more. The very secret she’s trying been to keep is leaking out.
The imagery in this book is brutal. It’s not just the violence, but the overall tension on every page. I felt every character’s fear. How they handle that fear varies wildly, unpredictably, making the story even more nerve-wracking. (In a great way.) Human society has broken down on this tiny corner of Earth; isolation and desperation thrum through every action. The Alpha seem no better – they’re a nightmare made flesh. When Lyric and Fathom form a surprising connection, it’s easy to imagine the void each of them needs to fill.
Usually books set in present day, regular-old Earth are “realistic fiction”, but Undertow heaps creativity upon our world. Coney Island is a relic, maybe Earth is next. The Alpha are imprisoned, but so are those who imprisoned them. Buckley’s setting makes the story’s themes infinitely more effective. He doesn’t have to world-build, just find a new world offshore and let it swim in. In an era of refugee crises and travel bans and deportations, there’s a real-life drama boiling under this story of the sea.