“So what now?”

He looks down the street in every direction. “Show me why I should want to be part of this world.”

Three years ago, on a regular, summer day, humanity’s understanding of the world and their place in it shifted. The Alpha—Sirena, Nix, Triton, and others; the mermaids and squid-people and sea monsters of legend—walk out of the sea and onto the Coney Island Boardwalk. A sentient, warriorlike species, the Alpha have lived underwater, have their own culture and language, and have decided (for reasons yet unknown) to unveil themselves to the humans above. For three years, the Alpha have been put in a kind of demilitarized zone, transforming the Boardwalk into a refugee camp, while the rest of the world attempts to figure out what to do with this new knowledge and these new intelligent life forms. Coney Island becomes “Fish City” to the rest of the world and a hotbed of political and ideological debate—the situation becomes even more volatile when Alpha students are integrated into Coney Island’s public high school.

For Lyric Walker, this is a very bad thing.

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Three years ago, Lyric Walker’s entire life changed. Her family guards an enormous secret, one that involves the Alpha, and she has fought desperately to keep her head down and blend into the background. But when the Alpha join her school, inviting all the ugliest parts of human bigotry and hatred, Lyric is sucked into the fray. Paired with an Alpha student—not just any Alpha, but the crown prince!—Lyric struggles to keep her family’s secret and navigate the fraught waters of human xenophobia and Alpha disgust and disdain. As tensions mount in Coney Island, though, no one is safe—not human, not Alpha, or anything in between.

From reading the book description of Undertow, I expected Michael Buckley’s YA sci-fi thriller to be about invading aliens from outerspace, combined with teenage interspecies instalove of the most ridiculous variety. (I hate, hate the instalove and how prevalent and forced it can be in some commercial YA SF/F.) I was promised District Nine meets The Outsiders; I certainly wasn’t expecting a book about people from the sea, about America’s ugly history when it comes to illegal aliens, segregation, and racial tension, or issues like domestic violence. Undertow is surprisingly deep—if you’ll forgive the terrible pun.

Well, it aspires to depth, in any case.

The District Nine comparison is a fair one—the imagery in Undertow, of tents clustered together on the now completely off-limits Coney Island boardwalk does conjure to mind the decrepit slums of Blomkamp’s D9; the political allegory, though much more overt and simplistic in Undertow, is present as well. As for The Outsiders, well, I can kinda see that comparison, too: certainly there’s violence and death, there’s teen anger, and a gang of murderers driven by irrational hatred, fear, and misunderstanding. The themes in Undertow have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (or one of Lyric’s F5 migraines), but what they lack in grace or style, they make up for with their heft—these are important issues, and Buckley pays them due respect through Lyric’s surprisingly considered and genuine narrative. Told in the dreaded first-person present tense, Lyric’s point of view actually is one of the best parts of this book: her fear for her family and friends, her confusion and anger at the venomous actions of her peers and neighbors, her desire to do the right thing all come across beautifully in Undertow. As far as heroines go, Lyric is pretty freakin’ awesome.

On the worldbuilding (or if you prefer, mythology-establishing) front, Undertow also delivers. While there is no explanation given for the arrival of the Alpha (not even at the end of the book, when we learn what has happened to their empire) to humans, the rules and mores readers are exposed to regarding their culture make sense and follow a logical—if, again, simplistic—progression. Theirs is a warlike society, reminiscent of earlier western civilizations (early Imperial Rome comes to mind). The divisions and hierarchies between the types of Alpha are relayed to Lyric mostly by her paired peer, and heir to the Prime Alpha, Fathom (not actually his name, but closer to the sound of his name underwater). Through Fathom’s many, many injuries, Lyric learns that wounds are trophies worn proudly by the prince; that honor comes from physical skill; that challenges met and bested are their own type of valiance.

Of course, there’s the requisite teenage romance—and requisite angst—too. Undertow romantically involves Lyric and Fathom (OF COURSE) but in a way that is thankfully slow and minimizes the cheese factor. They certainly don’t fall in love at first site, and while the relationship is accelerated and sufficiently angst-y, Lyric’s clear-headedness in evaluating her own crush and feelings is refreshing. More important than the romance, I was impressed by Lyric’s relationships with other people—her mother and father (who are loving and protective and amazing), as well as her best friends Bex and Shadow.

Overall? Undertow is an unexpectedly refreshing book. It ends with a bang and a pretty big revelation about Lyric and her family; I’ll certainly be back for Book 2. Recommended, especially for those looking for something a little different with their YA SF/F this summer.

In Book Smugglerish: an F6 tornado-migraine out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.