Book Review: Undertow

By: Michael Buckley
Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release date: May 5, 2015
Genre: YA science fiction
376 pages

Guess what?  Another sentient humanoid species has been sharing the Earth with us for centuries.  They call themselves the First Men; we call them Alphas.  Thirty thousand of them came out of the sea and have been living on the beach at Coney Island. Tomorrow is the start of experimental school integration.

I love how Buckley just drops the reader right into the action.  There is very little preamble before we witness the clash of cultures between humans and Alphas on the first day of school.  The Alphas comprise five clans with different appearances and powers, some more bizarre, some more human-like.  There is a predictable amount of violence between the two races, given the fear and racism of many of the humans and the semi-Klingon like culture of the Alphas.
Undertow has a lot of what I think of as typical YA characteristics.  Lyric is a strong female main character.  Despite frequent debilitating migraines, she is pretty good at taking charge of her situation.  The exception of course is her (typically YA) love interest with the unattainable/potentially dangerous boy, Fathom, who is the heir apparent to the leader of the Alphas.  And, naturally, the oppressive government/military involves itself with everything because they perceive the Alphas as a security threat.  
There were two things that really made Undertow stand out for me.  First is Buckley’s amazing power of description.  “If America is a melting pot, Coney Island is the overcooked crusty stuff on the bottom of the pan” (p.34) made me laugh.  And this, after a racially motivated attack, cemented by belief in the man’s ability to turn a phrase: “Ah, papier-mâché!  With a little flour and water, there’s no limit to the hate you can make.” (p. 115)  The other facet that made Undertow really sing for me is the incredible bond between Lyric and her best friend, Bex.  There is something real and raw about their friendship, and Buckley develops it expertly.

Two aspects of the book disappointed me a little.  First, Lyric and Fathom’s relationship felt a bit fake.  I think Buckley may have been going for the strong-silent Darcy vibe, but Fathom gives no clear indication of his interest in Lyric until he kisses her.  It didn’t seem to fit with how his personality is so controlled and dispassionate.   Second, the background of the First Men/Alphas is pretty vague.  Lack of world building is a common problem with YA, and here it felt like Alpha society was so violent just to serve the plot of the story by giving authorities a reason to keep them contained on the beach for years, control their movements, etc.  I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the hope that it will fill in the gaps by explaining their history more and how they came to be so warlike.

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.