Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Undertow - Michael Buckley

Undertow by Michael Buckley
Series: Undertow #1
Genre: YA, fantasy, contemporary
Published on May 5, 2015
Published by HMH Books
Pages: 384
Read From: 6.10.15 - 6.15.15

Sixteen-year-old Lyric Walker's life is forever changed when she witnesses the arrival of 30,000 Alpha, a five-nation race of ocean-dwelling warriors, on her beach in Coney Island. The world's initial wonder and awe over the Alpha quickly turns ugly and paranoid and violent, and Lyric's small town transforms into a military zone with humans on one side and Alpha on the other. When Lyric is recruited to help the crown prince, a boy named Fathom, assimilate, she begins to fall for him. But their love is a dangerous one, and there are forces on both sides working to keep them apart. Only, what if the Alpha are not naturally the enemy? What if they are in fact humanity's only hope of survival? Because the real enemy is coming. And it's more terrifying than anything the world has ever seen.


Dear Undertow,

As a fan of Michael Buckley, I was pretty certain that I would like you - despite the fact that your alluded romance had me a little doubtful, and I was also worried that you would boil down to an overly preachy message about equality. I was eager to delve in, but also slightly nervous. Undertow, you were like nothing I have ever read before.

In one pivotal night, the world completely changes. A race of sea people called the Alpha rise up from off the coast of Coney Island and make contact with humanity for the first time. People are at first awed and curious about this alien, warlike race. But it doesn't take long for curiosity to turn into hostility. The Alpha are confined to a tent city on the Coney Island beach, a thug group called the Niners rises up to harass and murder the Alpha, and suddenly neighbor turns against neighbor. When the government decides to integrate Alpha teenagers into the local high school, Lyric Walker is tapped on the shoulder to act as teacher to the Alpha prince, Fathom. She's to have all her classes with him, help him with homework, teach him about her world. But the Niners don't look too favorably on people who friend "fish heads." Lyric has no choice, though; she guards a deadly secret about her family that, were it found out, would lead to their arrest and transportation to a secret government facility. To make matters worse, as Lyric gets to know Fathom, she finds herself feeling something for him. And then all hell breaks loose when it's revealed that the Alpha are the least of humanity's worries.

Lyric has every right to be upset with her circumstances. She's been blackmailed into befriending someone who is just as reluctant to call her friend - and in fact despises and looks down on her whole race. If she helps Fathom, she's put a huge target on herself and her family for the Niners. If she doesn't, worse might happen. She makes the best of the situation and does genuinely try to be at least cordial to Fathom. But Fathom is so disdainful of humans that he would frustrate anyone with even a boatload of patience. I totally, completely sympathized with Lyric's predicament.

What surprised me was that I also liked and sympathized with Fathom. He's grumpy and conceited, but he's not moody; happy one moment, raging the next. He's been raised a certain way and the humans he's interacted with have hardly left a favorable impression. As the prince of the Alpha, he has a lot of responsibility and expectation resting on his shoulders. But as Lyric teaches him about her world - and she learns about his - Fathom changes. For once, frustration and disdain on both sides was understandable - and also equally annoying from time to time.

The side characters were awesome. I loved Bex, Lyric's outgoing, flamboyant best friend who hid her troubles and hurt behind her bubbly exterior. She was the strong one, the one making plans and having fun and being daring. But it hid an obvious fragility. I wanted to give her a big hug. And then there was Shadow, the aspiring journalist/media socialite who also has a big crush on Bex. Oh, I loved him so much! And he and Bex together - made me all warm and fuzzy inside.

For the most part, you didn't focus on the romance between Lyric and Fathom all that much, Undertow. It helped that I liked both Lyric and Fathom, so I was okay with the pairing, and the romance really felt like it was just at the beginnings of something deeper - as it should be. You have a lot of different things going on; a lot of themes you explore. There's integrating the Alpha into the schools, Bex's family problems, Lyric's secret, the building hatred and anger and fear, the Alpha's true intentions for coming to Coney Island, and so much more. It's a lot for one book to juggle, but it's done masterfully. None of the themes are skimped or focused on too much. It enriches the world and the characters and gets you thinking about a lot of things. I'm always wary of books that are marketed as being "relevant to the current times" because that is, more often than not, code for "we're cramming a bunch of personal opinions down your throat." You, Undertow, didn't do that. And because you addressed so many different themes and issues from multiple sides, it in fact made you much more relevant to the "current times" than preachy books. And it was still a brilliant work of fiction, for those who just want to look at the surface.

I have always enjoyed Michael Buckley's writing style, but I don't think the potential - the brilliance - of his style truly showed through until you, Undertow. While still movie-ish, it was a movie-ish that was also lyrical, brilliant, poignant, and evocative. I was swept away by the words, both by the imagery and the emotion in it. I found myself crying more than once, and gasping out loud, and exclaiming in anger. Books grip me, but I'm not generally a vocal reader.

Undertow, you were brilliant. I anticipated enjoying you because you are a Michael Buckley masterpiece, but I didn't quite expect you to sweep me away like you did. I cannot wait for your sequel.

Feeling amazed,
~ Mara A. ~

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