Book Review: Undertow

Note: I received a preview of this novel thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

To me there are two types of YA: There are the books that focus on a subject that publishers say only teens will like (Magic! vampires! Being a teen!) and yet are written at a level that adults can enjoy as well. I am thinking, of course, of Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars, both of which are marketed to youth or young adults and yet have found a wide readership with all ages. Then there is the second type of book. This type tends to be more about everyday happenings in everyday life and is written specifically for teens, with all their drama, language choices and attitude included.

Undertow by Michael Buckley

Undertow by Michael Buckley

I just can’t quite wrap my head around the second type. Let’s face it: As an adult I have faced and survived too many experiences to care too much about what Becky said about the book’s main character, and why that earned Becky the silent treatment. Nor do I have patience for temper tantrums that are based in a complete disregard for those around the main character. The problem, of course, is that I am just too far removed from that point in my life. I’m sure I was a complete jerk as a teen and it would be wrong to pretend I wasn’t. But I am grateful that I pushed past the appearance of these characteristics in this particular novel to get to the interesting, heartbreaking and thrilling story at the core of Michael Buckley’s Undertow, the first in what will be a science fiction/fantasy trilogy aimed at young adults.

Undertow launches us into its plot by placing readers into a strangely familiar situation: A group of teens fights through a violent mob to get to their high school after it is the first in the nation to be integrated. But it is not 1957, we are not in Arkansas and the group being protested are not African-Americans. Instead it is present day Coney Island, a year after the shore was invaded by a fish-like civilization of humanoids that call themselves the Alpha. The story focuses on Lyric Walker, a young human trouble-maker whose father is a police officer and whose mother has a terrifying secret. The government decides that the only way to quash the paranoid and violent reactions to the Alpha is to integrate their children at Lyric’s school. Part of the scheme calls for Lyric to tutor an Alpha prince in the ways of humans, a sort of indoctrination that doesn’t quite go as planned and puts Lyric, her family and her two best friends in mortal danger.

Let’s start with what I liked about this book: I enjoyed the novel invention of the Alpha. Far from being just another mermaid tale, Buckley’s civilization is complex and made up of five different beings with different looks, skills and purposes. Beyond the intriguing civilization, the Alpha provide a mechanism for teens to explore concepts of prejudice and acceptance, as well as historical events such as integration and Japanese internment camps without hitting readers over the head with these references. I also like that Lyric isn’t perfect. She’s a trouble-maker, providing instant likeability for some reluctant readers who don’t want to read about another super-smart, perfect heroine (I love Hermione, but I’m willing to bet there are a ton of kids who hate her).

Now let’s get to what I don’t like: Lyric’s whiny bratty-ness and unbelievable selfishness. I had to spend far too much time battling my way through her self-centered attitude that I almost gave up. I also found that it dragged at the beginning because I found the heroine so unlikeable that I just couldn’t care about what was happening in her life. Luckily there were enough moments where you witnessed protectiveness for her best friend and somewhat reluctant compassion for the Alpha that I begrudgingly began to like her.

But if I’m being honest, many young adults may understand where she’s coming from and they might have no problem getting into this book because they do want to know what happens to Lyric.

I have written before about the value of young adult literature, pointing out that I actually didn’t read some of my favorite series until I was older than the age for which those series were intended (Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time, for example). But this is an example of young adult literature that is best read by young adults, or perhaps by those adults who need to gain some insight into the impenetrable attitudes of teens. All that being said, I definitely think the young teens at my own library will be picking up this book.

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