First in a series
By Michael Buckley
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Michael Buckley, author of the popular middle-grade series NERDS and Sisters Grimm, makes the transition to YA with UNDERTOW. The first in the series, it could be described as District 9 meets mermaids set in Coney Island.
The Alpha, a group of aquatic species resembling the legendary mermaids, selkies, nixies, and more, first appeared on the shore a few years ago. They've lived in a shanty town on the beach, but now they're going to integrate more, including the prince and some others attending the local high school. (There is a clear allegory of the Little Rock Nine and desegregation.) Lyric Walker doesn't want them to integrate because it puts more attention on her high school, and possibly her. She's half-Alpha; her mother was part of a first wave that spied on and lived with humans. All but one of the other half-Alpha families have been disappeared by the government and the Walkers don't want to be next.
The complicated politics Buckley sets up in UNDERTOW are fantastic. Different branches of the US government want different things. The people of Coney Island want different things. The Alpha want different things from each other too. I also liked the development of the differences in Alpha culture. They're more prone to fighting to prove their point, and not treating their wounds to prove their honor and toughness. (It's all a little ridiculous, as Lyric points out.) There are parallels to real-world racial politics, but I liked that Buckley doesn't hammer to hard at them or make them the focus of the book, since treating people who can grow swords out of their arms as dangerous is a good idea. The focus is more on how people can react to differences, how some people reach out and others seek to divide.
No one will be surprised that Lyric and the prince, Fathom, fall in love. I did like that Lyric wasn't divided between two boys. However, UNDERTOW isn't love triangle free since the prince already has a fiancee. I did like that Lyric doesn't forget her other concerns for love. Keeping her parents and friends safe are always her top priority. (I did rather dislike one plot point that felt designed for cheap tragedy, rather than proving that anyone could die.)
The ending to UNDERTOW felt rather abrupt, with lots of information coming at once followed by a big confrontation and a cliffhanger. It's pretty par for the course for the opening of a YA trilogy, but I did expect more because Buckley did manage to skillfully work past many cliches. I'm still looking forward to the next novel, especially since it looks like it will dive even deeper into the world of the Alpha.