I knew Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant had it in her, somewhere. She takes the promise she had shown in Feed, her creature inventiveness from Discount Armageddon and weaves them together with the horror atmosphere from Every Heart a Doorway to create a terrifically scary tale.
“News flash, Victoria: we know you’re looking for the little mermaid who can give you back your sister’s voice. You’re not going to find her.”
Victoria, or Tory, is a marine biologist, working summers for the tourist cruises through Monterey Bay, California (been there!) and spending the rest of her time and money researching the sounds of the ocean deep. Her older sister, Allie, was the videographer for an exploratory ship put together by Imagine Entertainment (aka ‘Dreamworks’?) to look for ‘mermaids,’ and was never found. Everyone on the ship was slaughtered or missing, and the bits of found footage showed fanged mermaid-like creatures hunting the humans down and eating them. The world remained skeptical, however. It’s seven years later, however, and a representative from Imagine approaches Tory and her research partner, Luis, with an invitation to be part of a second discovery mission.
I wasn’t sure exactly where the story would head, but at about 20% it occurred to me that it was Jurassic Park, ocean version. It even included two big game hunters everyone loved to hate: “They had traveled the world, taking their prey from every environment, every ecosystem. They had bribed, bartered, and trespassed to line up the perfect shot, creating their own Noah’s Ark of ghosts.” As soon as I met them, I felt sure they were the characters were were going to love being eaten, as the ghosts from all their big game hunts took revenge.
The locations are beautifully realized. In fact, for the first bit of Tory’s introduction, I felt I was reading a blog post about Monterey, California. But the world-building is a tad odd. The set-up for the story is done in 2015, but the majority takes place in 2022. There is supposed to be a greater divide between the wealthy and the poor, climate change is taking a toll, but drought has been solved with solor-powered desalination plants. It’s an odd juxtaposition, because in one moment it feels so very now as to possibly be last week, and then the next there are momentary references to advanced technologies we haven’t reached quite yet. Her partner, Luis, has a crazy amount of family money which he has used to help develop new technologies and lab equipment that they use for their research.
But you know what? Who cares about little world-building oddities. Its fun. It follows many classic horror tropes and yet the reader remains deeply invested. Tory is developed well enough to be both driven and kind, and her friend Luis is the epitome of the distracted, awkward scientist. There are two deaf women and their translator sister, all of whom have difference science specialties and focus (deepsea pod pilot, chemist, language specialist), so you just know that sign language will play a role somewhere. Olivia is a ‘personality’ and videographer who has been hired to document the trip. The representative for Imagine, Theo, has a chronic pain syndrome that he treats with an intriguing mixture of marine neurotoxins, and I’ll be honest–I totally expected that would play a role as well. His estranged wife, Jilliana Toth, is one of the reasons for the first expedition, as her life’s work as a biologist has been to prove mermaids exist. She’s a fascinating, determined character, full of guilt about the first expedition.
“Her career was a shipwreck. At least is was a shipwreck that she had, thus far, managed to survive. That was more than she could say for the ones who’d sailed upon the Atargatis. But the guilt, ah… The guilt was the reef upon which her marriage had crashed”
Which leads me, not incidentally, to one of the things that Grant/McGuire is finally getting right for such a prolific author who likes to see the unseen and counter expectations: we finally have a female cast that feels developed and well-rounded. And while a romance is brought into it, it’s a queer one, quite possibly the first in all her thirty-five-ish books.
“Olivia, who was staring down the barrel of a lifetime of nightmares, assuming her lifetime extended past this place, this ship, this damned and doomed voyage, said nothing.”
The writing is solid. It is often very evocative, but occasionally Grant gets a little carried away and will use some florid imagery and dialogue that doesn’t make sense. It is easy to forgive her, but it is the kind of thing that prevents it from being a truly remarkable book. Grant also made infrequent but completely annoying use of the full parenthetical paragraph. Seriously–get a better editor. At over four hundred pages, it is one of Grant’s longest works to date and while I enjoyed the science, it could have used some trimming.
What was also quite fun for me was the science-geek setting and the creature opposition. There’s a lot of interesting description of oceans, mammals, sea-life, etc. packed in here, but it’s usually more Mary Roach-level of discussion rather that very technical concepts. There are a couple of spots it gets a little more technical, particularly when Tory is explaining her research using sound to map ocean life, but most of it is accessible. The device of the videographer allows for low-level explanations.
All that said, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who happens to have an interest in oceans and urban fantasy.