Undertow by Michael Buckley tells an ugly story. Three years ago, the Alpha arrived on the beach of Coney Island, New York. They’re made up of mixed races of sea dwelling creatures – many of whom appear to be plucked for our very own myths and legends. Calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Sirena, Triton, Nix, and so on, the Alpha set up camp on the beach and begin to intermingle with humanity. The results are as predictable as they are disheartening. Humanity rejects the castaways – forcing them to remain on the beach where a tent city soon overtakes the coastline. It is another slum on the edge of a city already rife with racial tension.
Three years on, a program is devised to integrate the Alpha children into local schools. It is hoped this will foster a relationship between the younger generation that will filter back through both sides of the not so cold war. This is where Lyric Walker comes in. From the beginning, we know she is different. She professes to be a wild thing, but the arrival of the Alpha has tamed her teenaged rebellion. Still she is far from a model student, and holds the respect of the kids she used to run with. For this reason, she is chosen to partner one of the Alpha kids. She and Fathom – the prince of the Alpha – are supposed to meet for an hour each day and get to know one another. The notion to show one of the cool kids taking the first steps toward equanimity is hopelessly naïve – so much so, even Lyric thinks it’s a bad idea. But the arbiter of this farce is a government agent, and he knows all the Walker family secrets.
For weeks, Lyric and her friends brave the picket line to attend school. Violence erupts almost daily – human against Alpha and human against anyone who might show the slightest sympathy for the people from the sea. The Alpha, with their rigidly stratified society and warped ideas of honour, are just as antagonistic. The violence escalates toward outright horror. Students are bullied for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any willing contact with the Alpha is an unforgiveable sin. A new gang gives rise to an abusive order until school is finally closed due to a gunman gaining access and running rampant through the halls.
In the midst of this ugly representation of our society, attraction blooms between Lyric and Fathom – which is the hinge upon which the rest of the book balances for the space of a couple of chapters. Then the door slams shut – in the wrong direction. What was ugly becomes foul.
I found the last third of Undertow increasingly difficult to read. Not because it isn’t well written – it is. Michael Buckley’s prose draws you quickly into the story and carries you effortlessly forward. From the beginning, the pacing matches the rhythm of our teenaged protagonist, Lyric Walker, as she flips from obsessing about her wardrobe to worrying concepts larger than herself – her family and their fate, her neighbourhood and the unclear picture she has of a future that includes both humanity and the Alpha. But when I wanted more outrage on her behalf regarding the way her friends and counterparts treat the Alpha, what I got instead was factual reportage of the horror unfolding before her young eyes. Some scenes are very visceral, but without Lyric’s emotional subtext, they didn’t carry quite the punch they might have. There is one incident in particular that shows a severe lack of compassion on her part – the thought is there, but not enough time is given for those seeds to take root.
The other fault of the last third manifests at around the same time as the pacing suddenly switches into overdrive with hours and days passing in a matter of sentences – if they’re referenced at all. It’s clear the book is racing toward a climax, and it is exciting. Unfortunately, I still needed time to recover from the event that is clearly the beginning of the end. I understand that war doesn’t allow that time, and this is – if nothing else – a novel of war. But this turning point is vastly important, and it ends up feeling almost meaningless.
Along with the jerky pace and lack of emotional depth, the last third of the book delivers a number of plot conveniences, many of which could have been powerful tools in the reader’s kit if delivered sooner. Had we known the reason the Alpha arrived, we might have had more sympathy for them. Maybe. With the super late delivery of the big outstanding “why”, however, I couldn’t help wondering if the author only figured out a compelling enough reason at the same time he delivered it.
Ultimately, I did not dislike the book. In fact, I enjoyed the first three quarters, despite the uncomfortable itch in my head, the one that refused to believe humanity could be so petty and cruel, and that we’re raising our children to be intolerant. That we can be as thoughtless as a herd of pack animals goaded onto action single, outraged voice. Regardless of my horror, I gave Mr. Buckley his due for having the wherewithal to cast us in such an ugly light. But when I looked for the flipside – the brightness I believe is within all of us – I found it tarnished and dull. I wanted the relationship between Lyric and Fathom, that hinge, to open the door again. To allow the light in. But the lack of emotional punch meant I didn’t truly believe in the relationship. To reuse my odd metaphor, the hinge wasn’t strong enough.
Despite this, I would recommend Undertow to readers of Young Adult fiction. It might not end up necessary conversation starter about bullying and intolerance, but it does deliver a unique story, lots of action, and a young heroine who has some admirable qualities. Lyric is unflinchingly loyal to her family and friends, and has a true moral compass. It will be interesting to see what direction this takes her in in the follow up novel, Raging Sea, due out February 2016.
Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.