I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Readers of this blog know by now that I’m a great fan of author Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, so it would come as no surprise that I was eager to see what she would do with this new facet of her vast repertoire of creatures that goes from fae and changelings to zombies and onwards to various other fascinating and/or scary beings. If curiosity was my prime motivator, I was on the other hand slightly worried that this novel might retrace the steps of its prequel novella Rolling in the Deep, and therefore offer little in the way of story or characterization: this being Mira Grant, however, I should not have been concerned, because she not only expanded on the core concept of that first foray into mermaid territory, but she also gave us a gripping, breath-stopping story that kept me on edge until the very end.
Several years before the start of Into the Drowning Deep, the entertainment network Imagine had financed an expedition to the Mariana Trench in search of mermaids, following once more the sensationalist path of Imagine’s usual programming. A small group of scientists and entertainment people had embarked on the Atargatis with the goal of proving the existence of these mythical creatures, and in the end they did find what they were looking for: reality, however turned out to be much worse than any fancy concept, and the ship was later recovered, adrift and empty, save for a few snippets of footage that showed something terrible and incredible – so incredible that it was labelled as a hoax.
As the story starts, Imagine decides to mount a second, more well-equipped expedition, with the goal of proving the truth of that much-reviled footage and to recover the network’s credibility. For a number of the new expedition’s members, however, the voyage will be a way of putting to rest the ghosts of friends or loved ones lost with the Atargatis, or to find revenge for their untimely death. This is the case for scientist Victoria “Tory” Stewart, whose sister Anne was the media face of that fateful voyage, while Doctor Jillian Toth – who choose at the last moment not to join the previous expedition – wants to find definitive proof of the mermaids’ existence and somehow assuage her guilt over the tragedy that befell the unlucky ship. Aboard the Melusine, a state of the art sailing vessel equipped with the latest in scientific research and protection against eventual attacks, Imagine has collected various teams of scientist, a group of security guards for their safety, and a husband-and-wife team of professional hunters, creating a quite volatile mix of personalities that promises from the start to make this venture into the deep ocean a difficult one, even without the dangers posed by the creatures in the found footage.
Thanks to my knowledge of what happened aboard the Atargatis, my sense of impending doom started immediately and was not improved by some of the details offered now and then in an almost off-hand manner, like the information about the shielding plates installed to protect Melusine’s passengers from external attacks, shields that fail the test runs effected by the crew. Being aware of what was coming made the constant bickering between the scientists – competing with each other for visibility and fame – and the difficult relations between them and the hunters, look even more petty and superficial: in this respect Mira Grant gives us a wide range of personalities from both sides of the spectrum, their interactions contributing to the growing feel of disaster on the make that is the backbone of this novel. And so we get Olivia, the new poster-girl for Imagine, who presents an airy, happy-go-lucky face to the world while hiding both profound insecurities and some unexpected depths of courage that will surface in the direst moments; or Luis, Tory’s friend and science partner, whose support and friendship toward Victoria are indeed a bright light in the overall darkness of the story; or again the abrasive manners of Dr. Toth, who uses her scientific detachment and practical approach as a cover for what looks like a sort of death wish.
The book offers an interesting commentary on humanity as well, on our approach to the strange and uncanny: once the clips from the Atargatis’ tragedy are released, the public at large refuses to believe such evidence, calling it a hoax and blaming the entertainment network for the death of passengers and crew. What does this say about modern audiences, used to special effects and world-wide media coverage? Probably that we have become accustomed to it all and have somehow lost our sense of wonder – and Grant seems to warn us that turning a deaf ear on legends might in the end be our downfall, because nature still has many ways in which to surprise us. Or worse.
The mermaids are indeed the central focus here, not simply a bloody incident, since the author has created for them a whole background that’s in equal parts fascinating and terrifying: where they looked like mindless predators in Rolling in the Deep, here they are shown as part of a complex society, one shaped by the environment in which they live and by the constant hunger that drives their actions. In popular lore mermaids have always been pictured as half fish, half alluring woman, their perceived beauty and lovely songs able to draw unwary sailors to a watery grave; here they appear as nightmarish monsters whose true appearance has been glossed over by a myth that painted them as seductive, conveniently forgetting the “surprisingly sensual mouth brimming with needled teeth”, or the fact that their tantalizing song was nothing else but a very evolved form of mimicry, used to lure the unsuspecting prey. That was to me the most horrifying side of these creatures, not the fact that they can successfully assault a modern ship and kill its occupants with surprising ease, nor the fact that they feed on humans just as they feed on fish, but that they can imitate a person’s voice, or any noise, with uncanny accuracy, knowing it will bait the trap they are so efficient in laying.
Worse still, the nightmare does not seem to end here, because Into the Rolling Deep leaves a great deal of hanging threads and an open door for a sequel: there is a revelation toward the end that there might be something ever more terrifying lying in wait in the depths of the ocean, something barely perceived but still mind-shattering enough to prompt a character into an almost Lovecraftian exclamation: “The light, the light, oh God the light!”. Whatever that might be, I look forward to discovering it with the next book(s) in the series, while I will try to remember the warning Mira Grant issues at the end of her Acknowledgements section:
“Watch out for the water. You never know what might be down there”.
I guess I will take my next vacation on very dry land…