Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm series was one of the first books I reviewed when I started my blog in 2008 and four years later, with the publication of the ninth and final book in the series, it remains one of my all-time-favorite reads. If you, or anyone you know, loves fairy tales even the slightest bit, Sisters Grimm is a MUST read. Buckley is also author of another middle grade spy-kids series which I also reviewed, N.E.R.D.S., with book five being published last year. With Undertow, Buckley moves into the realm of YA books and dystopian worlds and it's very interesting to see where he goes. As a note, the violence and intensity of Undertow is on par with The Hunger Games and Maze Runner, which are widely read by middle school and even elementary school children. I stuck with a YA label because of a very brief intended sexual encounter that doesn't happen as well as the complexity of the social issues (and related violence) that Buckley explore. Undertow is a book that stays with you long after you read it, in part because the mash-up of racial hatred, social issues and mythical sea creatures with strange powers and violent ways. Reading Undertow is a bit like eating a sushi burrito - a lot of different, delicious things come together in one slightly out of place wrapper...
Undertow introduces us to the narrator Lyric Walker. Native of Coney Island and longtime sufferer of brutal migraines, Lyric is living in a city under siege and crowded with immigrants. These immigrants just happen to be thousands of creatures from the sea, mer-people or Alphas, as they are called in Undertow. There are a a variety of them, from Sirena to Selkies to Nix and Ceto, there are as many ethnic varieties of these beings from the sea as there are humans, and just as much class/caste ranking as there is in human society. On the shore, the humans are largely intolerant and racially biased against the Alpha, who have been confined to an area called "the Zone" that borders the shore and includes the boardwalk. As the novel opens, a government order has resulted in the integration of Alpha youth into the Coney Island schools, beginning with Lyric's high school. Police, including Lyric's father, along with the National Guard, United Nations soldiers and other military, are on campus in the likely event that violence erupts. Alpha sympathizers have been hanged from the ferris wheel and worse since their arrival.
Lyric, once a self-described "glitter princess" and Wild Thing, running around at night with her best friend, Bex, has had to make drastic changes and cut out any activity that might draw attention to herself. Lyric's mother is a Sirena, one of an initial undercover scouting party sent to learn the ways of humans, and the government has been tracking them - and their families - down and making them disappear. Unfortunately, Lyric is thrust into the spotlight when she is chosen to give private tutoring lessons to Fathom, an Alpha prince (the childhood favorites brings to the tutoring lessons are a nice touch). Buckley does an impressive job balancing the racism of humans against humans with that of humans against Alphas and Alphas against humans. Lyric says that people talk about Coney Island's pre-Alpha days like they were magical, forgetting that their, "'Disneyland' was really a garishly painted slum in a crumbling neighborhood with rampant crime, a busy sex trade, a methadone clinic, and a school system in the toilet." On top of this, she notes this weird idea that the arrival of the Alpha caused all this, "weird racism and xenophobia," while everyone conveniently forgets that their was always racial hatred among the various groups, "the Chinese hated the Japanese, and the Jamaicans hated the Koreans, and the Mexicans hated the African Americans, and the Russians hated the Orthodox Jews, and the white people hated all of them." I applaud Buckley's ability to discuss racism in American in Undertow, possibly even making it palatable and comprehensible in the form of the hatred for the Alphas, like spinach hidden in brownies, in a way that might cause readers to begin thinking about race.
Finally, Undertow IS truly a YA novel in that there is forbidden romance, a hero discovering her true powers and some wild battles that take place on land and in the ocean. Buckley imbues his Alpha with some amazing powers and Lyric's moment of coming into her own as a Sirena is truly memorable. On his blog, I Don't Have Time For This Blog: What I'm Doing When I Should Be Writing, Buckley shares a lot of interesting things, including the Undertow Mixtape that inspired his writing. It's a very cool selection of music videos that will add to the experience or reading this first book in a trilogy.
The advance copy cover for Undertow. I like the cover they ended up with better...
And, for those of you who have never been, here's what Coney Island looks like on a summer day:
Source: Review Copy