Undertow Review

Undertow by Michael Buckley. Cover: refugee tents line the Coney Island boardwalkRead Undertow for:
* A unique high-conflict setting
* A strong protagonist and great supporting characters
* A thoughtful exploration of racism, violence, and culture wars in a police state

Undertow by Michael Buckley (May 5, 2015)     Add to Goodreads or see more reviews
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. To protect her family’s secret, Lyric agrees to help the crown prince, a boy named Fathom, assimilate. Both sides see her as a threat, and it’s up to Lyric to bridge the gap between human and Alpha. The real enemy is coming… 4 Stars - Recommended
My result: Recommended


Undertow was pitched to me as a diverse cast in a diverse setting, dealing with issues of racism and xenophobia through a science fiction lens. A merman invasion sounded hokey, but the promise of deeper issues overcame my reluctance. I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher, through Netgalley.

Complex explorations of racism and public order

Despite the weighty issues, Undertow is a fast, engaging read. Right away, you’re drawn into Lyric’s life. The Alpha live on the boardwalk in armed camps, and Coney Island has been shut off from the rest of the nation. By presidential order, her school is about to integrate human and Alpha students. Lyric is caught in a war zone, at the flashpoint of political fervor and public outcry.

Undertow tackles big issues in a way that’s rooted in characters and believable interactions. It’s not preachy. Issues aren’t simplified just to prove a point. Here’s an early example, as Lyric talks about the backlash against the Alpha:

“There’s also this idea that the Alpha caused all the weird racism and xenophobia, too, but whatever. This part of town was always a hotbed of racial sludge, and the various groups never played nice. … If America is a melting pot, Coney Island is the overcooked crusty stuff on the bottom of the pan.”

Undertow doesn’t just look at the prejudices and emotions of racism, it tackles the problem of what to do about it. Ordinary people are caught between politicians, police, protest groups, military, and radical extremists. Each person has to choose their stance, when to compromise, and when to stand firm. There aren’t easy choices, and Undertow gives the reader a lot to question. It doesn’t make the decision for you.

Fully developed characters

Lyric is an engaging narrator. She’s funny, in a snarky and somewhat jaded way that suits the story perfectly. She has problems and secrets of her own, which can make her abrasive at times. But she’s not selfish. Her friends and family have big challenges too, and she’s very proactive in tackling them, whether that means being supportive or aggressive.

The supporting characters in Undertow are just as fully developed as Lyric. Her dad, a cop, faces down violence every day, but has to balance that against protecting his family and following his conscience. Her mom is caught between conflicting loyalties. Her best friend Bex wears a smile to hide the damage of an abusive home life. Shadow posts videos from behind the lines online, to show people what’s really happening on Coney Island. And the Alpha children reveal glimpses of a complex culture too alien to at first be understood.

Every story line holds conflict and reflects a facet of Undertow‘s underlying themes of violence and culture clash. They’re woven together well. You care about Lyric’s story, but become just as invested in the other threads. As the characters hurtle towards disaster, you’re invested in the outcome.

Failed romance

Lyric and Fathom share an unfounded and completely unbelievable attraction to each other. It’s a shame really, as the far more genuine friendship that develops between them is just as taboo as a relationship would have been. The same issues apply, and they’d trigger just as much opposition. They’d likely still have faced accusations of sexual involvement, and I’d love to have seen Undertow tackle the delicacy of not wanting each other while showing it would be okay if they did.

There’s also the problem that Fathom is taken, and it’s treated as a complete non-issue. Fathom has a chosen mate, and even says that yes, he does love his Alpha partner. But there’s little conflict, and no consequences, for their decision to ignore it.

The romance has no importance in the plot at all. It triggers no scenes which wouldn’t have happened otherwise, has little relevance to the conclusion, and doesn’t feel genuine. Do not come to Undertow expecting a story of star-crossed lovers kept apart by society, who either end in tragedy or overcome all odds to be together. You will be disappointed. Read it for everything else, because the romance is unnecessary, unbelievable, and unsatisfying.

Final Verdict

With all the different story lines, Undertow could be a disaster. Instead, careful balance and fully realized characters make it a success overall. It fails in only one aspect: the romance.

Undertow earns 3.5 stars. The diverse cast and thematic exploration of issues earn a high 4, but the pointless and unnecessary romance would be a three at best if considered separately. What Undertow does right is harder to find than what it does poorly, so I’m rounding up. I do recommend this title, but not as a romance.

If you like Undertow

If you like Undertow, try: Embassytown by China Mieville, Revival by Tim Seeley, Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, or Sacrifice of Fools by Ian McDonald
You might also enjoy:

  • Embassytown – A human among a completely alien populations, as diplomatic relations break down and violence threatens.
  • Revival – Politicians and police converge on a small town after an unexplained revival of the dead. A closed environment escalates things quickly, and a diverse cast of well-developed characters survive inside. Graphic novel. [My Review]
  • Stranger – Diverse residents of a future L.A. fight off raiders at the edge of a deadly desert. More adventure than Undertow, for those who want to see diverse characters work together, not battle against each other.
  • Sacrifice of Fools – 80 thousand aliens settle in Belfast and the already-divided city attempts to integrate the new arrivals.
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