Book one of the Waterfire Saga
By Jennifer Donnelly
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Jennifer Donnelly burst onto the literary YA scene with A NORTHERN LIGHT, a critically acclaimed darling. Her next YA novel, REVOLUTION, was also well received. I was super excited to see that her newest novel, DEEP BLUE, would tackle current genre trend mermaids. Mermaids + Donnelly's lush writing = how could it go wrong?
The opening chapters supported my excitement. The witchy opening reminded me of Macbeth, and set up a portentous mood. Then the action shifted to main character Serafina getting reading for her coming-of-age ceremony and betrothal. The little details of language, clothing, objects, and culture showed that Donnelly had really thought out how her undersea world worked. I really appreciated that it wasn't just Earth, but wet.
But at some point, that started to grate on me. Serafina and her best friend's language just sounds so teeny-bopper. There's dark danger and epic destiny lurking around the edges, but the tone is insistently light and preteen. Plus, that beginning section about getting ready goes on forever - it takes a full third of the book to reach the ceremony, which is when things get really started. That leads into the ending being majorly rushed. Three major characters are introduced in the last part of the book, which leaves no time to get to know or care about them. (Two of their names started with an "A," which did not help me tell them apart.)
There are good things about DEEP BLUE. Serafina and her best friend Neela are well developed characters. Both are princesses, which means that they've been raised to rule in addition to appreciating a nice dress. They have their own strengths and fears, which help and hinder their quest through the ocean. Ling, who they meet part of the way through, is a great addition to the group. I latched on to her practicality pretty hard. I also have to give Donnelly props for making her central characters a diverse group of girls. I can't say that I've ever read a book with a blind mermaid who uses a guide fish before.
At the same time, the character beats are pretty predictable. I expect exactly zero older readers won't tune up to what's really going on with Mahdi, Serafina's loving fiance who suddenly turned into a party boy. (I think the fact that this twist is obvious wouldn't be notable except for the fact that the resolution is delayed for the next book in the series.)
I don't think DEEP BLUE is bad, it's just not what I expected from Donnelly. (Nor is it what I expected from the cover and blurb.) Her prose is hampered by the cutesy undersea-speak ("currensea") and the characters seem very young. I expected a dark, literary fantasy aimed at the older YA crowd. DEEP BLUE is a mermaid adventure that I would feel pretty safe giving to most middle grade readers. (There is violence, but it is on-par with last year's middle grade undersea adventure THE NEPTUNE PROJECT.) Likewise, the politics are detailed, but grasping the finer points isn't necessary at all to the plot, which is standard go to this place, pick up these MacGuffins, defeat the bad guys fare. The environmental message is commendable, but simply presented.
Perhaps DEEP BLUE will mature in future outings. But as is, Disney is doing the book a major disservice packaging it this way. Do pick it up if you're into cute, diverse mermaids banding together to save the ocean.