Book Review: Undertow by Michael Buckley

undertowI had read mixed reviews of this book on my GR feed, so I decided to read it and decide for myself. As you can see by my two-star review (I realize now I’ve been way too generous with these ratings. Most 3-star reviews I’ve given would be 2.5, can GR do half-stars please? /tangent)

At first, Undertow reminded me a lot of the now-cancelled CW show “Star-Crossed.” In the latter, aliens have come to Earth and are now living in camps, their teenage offspring are being integrated into public schools, and clumsy metaphors for Brown v. Board of Education abound. Of course, there’s also a forbidden love story between the human heroine and a hottie alien, and it’s insta-luv, because what other kind of love can there be when alien hotties are involved? Undertow features virtually the same conceit, except it’s sea creatures (called Alphas) instead of aliens. The Alphas have come to the surface like and are now living in camps on Coney Island, and their teenage offspring are being integrated into the local public school.

steppinonthebeachIt goes about as swimmingly as you’d imagine (pun intended). There are protests, fights, a school shooting, etc. I will give Undertow credit for one thing: unlike “Star-Crossed,” it doesn’t front like human society is some post-racial utopia now that aliens (or sea creatures) have shown up. That being said, however, the already-existing racial tensions in Coney Island don’t factor into the plot much if at all.

All of this conflict essentially goes nowhere as, in the third act, the narrative’s focus shifts toward an entirely new problem involving the Alphas. I can’t say more without spoilage, but the narrative takes a turn for the absurd (not that it wasn’t before, but it really strains credibility at this point and you know shit’s dire when, in a book about Spongebob and his ilk mingling with humans, this is what I find ridiculous). We find out why the Alphas came to the surface, among other things. Then there’s a twist that was such an ass pull I would’ve thrown my book across the room if it weren’t an ebook and I wasn’t about to pay for a new ereader. Nothing about it made any sense with the world building, which segues into my next point.

I could roll with the messy plotting and pacing of this book if it least had engaging characters and solid world building, but it has neither. Lyric, the heroine and POV character, is hardly the worst protagonist I’ve read—her reactions and decisions make sense and are understandable given the circumstances—but there’s not much to her, either. She’s mostly a cipher through which we view the Alphas, and while as a narrative device I get that, I wish she were more interesting. The supporting characters fare far worse, as none of them ever rise above the teen drama-by-numbers archetypes they’re firmly ensconced in. You’ve got the spunky and spirited bff, the brooding love interest, the cool inspiring teacher, the stoic government agent, the cartoonishly villainous right-wing politician (actually, a lot of right-wing politicians really do act this way, so I’ll give this character a pass), and so on.

As for the Alphas, they’re even more thinly-developed than their human counterparts. They all act like caricatures, which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise, because they basically are caricatures. There are a handful of different Alpha creatures, all of which regurgitate every sea creature cliché ever created. I actually forgot a lot of these creatures and had to search my ebook to find descriptions, which rarely go beyond a single overarching trait—Nix have teeth and claws and are thus prone to violence, Selkies are big and hulking so they’re the guards, Sirena are beautiful and mermaid-esque, etc. Obviously, the Alphas are perfectly adapted to survive on dry land, which makes no evolutionary sense, because if they ostensibly never had a reason to spend any time on land before then why are they able to breathe air and walk around and—oh, fuck it. I’m going to give myself a headache at this rate.


Oh, and as far I could tell, all of the Alphas have super powers, which vary depending on what kind of Alpha they are. Even their underclass have super powers. Their social structures and behavior are so simplistic and absurd that if my suspension of disbelief hadn’t already been beaten into submission by everything that came before, I would have… well, I’ll let this gif describe my reaction.


The romance plot is predictably thin and predicated on insta-luv, but with all the other stuff happening in the book, I understand there really wasn’t much room to develop it. Of course, it’s hard to develop a romance when one of the characters has about as much depth as a kiddie pool, but he’s a hot Alpha prince with super powers so that’s the important thing. Undertow is the first in a series, since everything YA has to be a series these days, so maybe there will be more development later. But I’m not holding my breath.

I will give Undertow credit for being entertaining and having an intriguing, if poorly-executed, concept. Admittedly part of the reason I kept reading was to see if the world building would out-dumb itself, but I suppose that’s as valid a reason as any. The worst offense a book can commit is being boring, and this wasn’t, so two stars from me.



2/5 stars