Hi there! Today I’m sharing my review for a dystopian YA novel that is eerily applicable to today’s mad, mad world. UNDERTOW, released today by Michael Buckley is a bit haunting in content, only because it brings the nastiest elements of our present society into sharp focus.
About the book:
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 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.
Action, suspense, and romance whirlpool dangerously in this cinematic saga, a blend of District 9 and The Outsiders.
Lyric learned the biggest secret of her life three years ago: her mother isn’t human. She is one of several ocean-dwelling races (a daughter of Sirena) who sent 20 operatives into the human world to learn about life on the surface. Her mother, Summer, met her (human) father and they married, had Lyric, and enjoyed a rather normal daily life as low-income people living in Coney Island. Lyric’s father is an upstanding police officer, and had been able to mask his wife’s lack of documentation over the years. Lyric had no reason to suspect anything was unusual about her heritage until the night the Alpha arrived.
The Alpha are Summer’s kin, and there’s 30,000 of them quarantined in a shanty town on the beach at Coney Island. Lyric’s entire neighborhood, now dubbed “The Zone”, has been placed on lock-down to keep the Alpha from branching out. This means Summer cannot leave Coney Island either as she has no birth certificate or social security card. The book opens with the forced integration of Lyric’s high school.
Lyric knows she needs to keep her head down at school and in public. All of Summer’s associates, the other 19 operatives and their families, have been “disappeared” to secret government labs for testing, and calling their house into scrutiny could lead to Lyric and her parents being captured. Summer spends her days and nights searching the video feeds of the refugees to find her parents so they can reunite, if possible.
The forced integration is intense and harkens back to the 60s and 70s inclusion of Blacks into “white” schools. Expect riots. Lyric and her BFF Bex are hard-pressed to make their way into school without being caught in the mobs. Plus, lots of kids in this impoverished school are more than happy to lash out at the Alpha, but Summer has told Lyric how deadly they can be. The bullying is extreme and fights are sure to have lethal consequences. Trying to stop one such altercation, Lyric finds herself square in the new principal’s spotlight, only Principal Doyle isn’t just the new guy in charge. It seems he’s got serious insider info regarding Lyric’s family. They strike a deal that Lyric acts as a tutor to the Alpha prime’s son, Prince Fathom, and Doyle won’t ‘out’ Summer’s Alpha status.
Thing is, humans seen as sympathetic to, or in the company of, Alpha have been killed by local anti-Alpha vigilantes. The chance of discovery gets ever higher as Prince Fathom and Lyric spend more time together–causing Doyle to sweeten his offer: he has bona fide paperwork for Summer that will enable her family to leave The Zone.
There is a love spark here, between Lyric and Prince Fathom, but it’s on the down low for the first half of the book. I think the bigger part of the story is the politicization of this refugee community. The governer of NY (a blatant parody of Michelle Bachmann which I appreciated) is a hardline conservative positioned against integration, and is on the school steps attempting to bodily block Alpha entry–the National Guard is out in full force, and present in the school and classrooms. Vigilantes are everywhere, attempting to incite riot.
There are so many parallels to today’s society in this novel one could discuss the themes in the context of racism, classism, undocumented status, homophobia, vigilante justice, and xenophobia, among others. The plot itself is not terribly original–Lyric must overcome her own issues and fight the spreading violence that is overtaking The Zone to save herself and her family. The characterization is unique, however, and the love interest thing is not the major focus. Sure, Lyric develops an affection for Fathom, and it’s reciprocated, but there are a million and one other things happening here, and that’s absolutely cool.
I really dug the action, and the world-building within this tiny slice of Americana. I’ve been to Coney Island, and could easily imagine the devastation of the community around it, all filtered through Lyric’s eyes. The Alpha are an amazing collection of beings, each of which has a specific role within their society. Learning that they are not the biggest problem facing humanity is rather a refreshing twist. Lyric’s migraines are a part of who she is, and the benefit of them was only revealed late. She’s able to channel some of that physiological malady into powering an Alpha weapon, but killing others may be beyond Lyric’s pacifist ideals. Well, until her existence is treatened… The short time-frame for mastery was thin on believability, but I was able to overcome it. I loved the gritty descriptions, and the secondary characters are fantastic–from Bex’s miserable abusive step-father to Lyric’s nosy racist neighbor.
The book ends with a temporary end to hostilites, though the resolution is not complete. Lyric has a lot more work to do to fix her family and her world. This is series I know my kids will love, and I’m anxious for the sequel.
About the Author:
New York Times bestselling author Michael Buckley was born in Akron, Ohio. He tried his hand as a stand-up comic and lead singer for a punk rock back before attending Ohio University. After graduating with honors he moved to New York City to be an intern on the Late Show with David Letterman which led to stints developing programming for Discovery Networks, MTV, MTV Animation and Klasky Csupo (producers of Nickelodeon’s Rugrats). Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Alison, and their son Finn.
Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!