Undertow by Michael Buckley (Undertow #1)


22749788Sixteen-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 actually 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.


Have you ever started a book and gotten that sinking feeling that it’s not going to turn out well? For me that moment came on page two, when the main character is talking about her migraines.

Somewhere along the line we started categorizing their shapes and sizes like hurricanes. F1 is the ever-present storm in my gray matter. An F5 is a motherf’r, on-the-floor, curled-up-in-a-ball, puking, sobbing, wanting-to-throw-rocks-at God state of emergency.

As a migraineur myself I can tell you it’s an accurate description but the Fujita scale is for tornadoes, not hurricanes. I know it feels like a nitpick, but I think the whole novel would have been more successful if the author and editor nitpicked more.

Parts of this story recall history in a compelling way – the arrival of the Alpha, humanoid-esque ocean creatures, on Coney Island’s shores reminded me of the (sadly) many refugee crises in the world. The angry mobs that gather when said Alpha are allowed to attend school mirrors the New Orleans School Crisis of 1960, with catfish being flung at students instead of tomatoes. A threatening next door neighbor calls to mind “grudge informants” in less-than-upstanding governments. All are deep and engaging themes to tackle in a YA novel and I’m glad they’re here.

But the execution leaves much to be desired. Whenever the protagonist Lyric goes to school her father, a police officer, has to escort her past the crowd. But when she gets inside all the other kids are already there. I guess they used sooper sekret back door.

Instead of parents refusing to send their children to the same school as the Alpha (what happened in 1960) the kids go anyway because… they like to cause mayhem? A police state appeals to them? I’m not sure.

Then there’s the Alpha’s “claustrophobia”. They abhor having something over their head and would rather have a clear view of the sky. Only one of the Alpha in the school seems to be bothered by ceilings and papered up windows, but whatever. When a battle looms and shelters are dug into the sand no one complains about the enclosed, covered space. And while I remember the tent city being described as only walls the cover artist had a different idea. Nitpicking would have saved me from head scratching.

The plot drives forward but doesn’t feel assured in its direction beyond “things must get worse”. Conditions deteriorate and people die with ever more smashing and crashing. Three chapters from the end we’re introduced to an entirely new culture, leaving no chance to appreciate or grok what is happening.

In sum Undertow is like a cut-rate roller coaster – fast and fun at times, but it leaves you motion sick once you step off.