As I mentioned in my Indie Bookstore Day Success! post a few months ago, our IBD trio received a number of recommendations from a wonderfully enthusiastic young woman who was determined to make our visit to Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond a standout amongst a day a featuring 21 bookstores. Among these recs was Into the Drowning Deep, which was briefly described to us as “mermaids, but it’s a horror novel.”
I’ve read a couple things by Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant in the past—Every Heart a Doorway, Sparrow Hill Road—and as a result was a bit on the fence about reading another book by her. I would never argue with anyone who says Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant is a good author, but her writing style is not one with which I’ve been particularly taken previously. (Same goes for China Miéville, an author whom Colleen loves, while I do not.) I really love horrific fantasy books, though, and I also love it when authors come up with a scientific explanation for popular fantasy creatures actually existing in the real world. And so, while looking for a fun read to distract me from how miserably ill I was while attempting to backpack through the Swiss Alps, I looked at Into the Drowning Deep sitting on the Sci-Fi/Fantasy – To Read shelf of my Kindle and went, ……… FINE.
So, it turns out Grant, prior to publishing this book in 2017, previously published the novella Rolling in the Deep in 2015, regarding the events which set the more complex story of this full-length novel in motion. I did not know this when I was reading Into the Drowning Deep, and since the novella is listed as #0.5 in the series on Goodreads, I’m pretty sure you are not expected to know this when you pick the book up off the shelf in your local bookstore’s sci-fi/fantasy section.
(Note: I’ve now gotten ahold of a copy of Rolling in the Deep from my local library and am interested to see how the novella changes my perspective of the novel.)
The premise of the novel is both very fun and very clever. Seven years ago, Imagine Entertainment’s attempt to film a mermaid discovery mockumentary out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was cut short by a mysterious catastrophe that left the SS Atargatis adrift and unmanned. Although a video clip was publicly leaked showing some top tier nightmare fuel, Imagine Entertainment has never officially declared whether the footage of slithering deep-sea horrors munching away on human carnage was real or just an elaborate hoax. Now, for many reasons—scientific study, PR, closure for families of the first voyage’s victims, creating a legacy—Imagine is funding a new expedition to the Mariana Trench with the brand new and specially designed Melusine. And of course, they’re prepared this time, and absolutely nothing will go wrong.
I found Into the Drowning Deep hard to put down, even after reading just the first few pages. The many different POVS, solid pacing, clear storytelling, and effective horror elements make for a cinematic experience—which is why I chose this book for my “a book you wish would be turned into a movie” category! The novel contains buckets of science talk, from many different fields, and is mostly quite believable when it comes to all the research and discoveries taking place on the Melusine. (The notable exception is linguistics—the leaps and bounds of scientific progress during the novel’s brief timespan lack credibility if Arrival is one of your favorite films and you read Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes for your book club.) Characters’ actions make sense, the plot is quite plausible, and the monsters are monstrous. What more could you want from a speculative fiction horror novel?
Well, a couple things, but their negative impact on your reading experience is negotiable. I mentioned above that I’ve never been in love with Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant’s writing, although I keep coming back for more. The main reason rests with her characters—or more specifically, with her characters’ relationships with one another. Characters tend to make or break a novel for me—I don’t care how groundbreaking your sci-fi concepts are if you can’t give me at least a couple interesting characters to hold onto while I grapple with the ideological implications of your imagined world. In this respect, Colleen and I are a balanced pair—she loves thinking about crazy ideas and concepts with all their political, scientific, philosophical, and social implications, while I love exploring characters’ minds and their relationships with one another (which may be greatly impacted by those crazy ideas and concepts).
McGuire/Grant’s writing is a bit of an odd duck for me, in that I often find her individual characters very interesting and believable, including when it comes to their personality driving the plot forward and creating sticky situations which they then have to resolve. So, my usual culprit of boring characters who are only there so that the ideas can happen has until now failed to explain my middle-of-the-road feeling where her writing is concerned. Into the Drowning Deep, however, finally showed me where my frustration was coming from.
All of the characters in the novel are distinct and interesting, with their own unique agendas for being onboard the Melusine and their own unique reactions to the carnage which starts to unfold. The point at which Grant loses me, however, is when those characters start relating to one another and suddenly Grant begins to rely more on telling than showing. If Character 1 and Character 2 are super into each other, I don’t discover this information until Character 3 suddenly tells Character 2 to try asking Character 1 out on a date. If Person 1 has a long and tumultuous history with Person 2, I am told this information up front, rather than having to infer the nature of their relationship by the way they speak and interact with each other. It’s a frustrating slip in McGuire/Grant’s otherwise engaging storytelling and characterization, but it comes up again and again when I’m reading her work.
Recently my friend Willa and I went out for Thai food and spent a very long time discussing Into the Drowning Deep, as well as Willa’s opinions on McGuire’s InCryptid series (which she has read and I have not). Willa suggested a possible explanation for this occasional disconnect between McGuire’s characters: everyone has to be “the cool guy,” which means everyone has to have witty dialogue and mic-drop-worthy lines. It’s a problem that is perhaps more apparent in an urban fantasy series than in a book about deep-water mermaids, but it’s a dialogue-writing approach which does tend to avoid genuine and realistic-sounding interactions between your characters, while instead relying on narrative statements in order to establish their relationships.
Of course, the question is whether this is a writing quirk which creates a problem for you as a reader. What irritates me may not irritate you, as that depends on what kind of reader you are and your personal preferences in writing style. So take my own opinion on this matter with a grain of salt!
My second issue was with the novel’s ending, which I will avoid discussing in detail at the risk of spoilers. I loved this book very very much, right up until the last fifteen pages, at which point it just kind of…….. stopped. Up until then, Into the Drowning Deep was an intricately plotted, let’s-go-for-broke horror novel packed with logical-sounding fantasy science propelling the story forward at each step. And then it all came to a screeching halt and everything was suddenly fine and we all got to go home now, I guess. When I finished the book, my immediate reaction was, ………. did she get bored???? ………. is that it???????? And then Willa pointed out that probably Grant was choosing to leave the ending open for a sequel, instead of giving us a satisfying your-life-your-self-your-everything-has-been-destroyed horror-story ending. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, aside from Grant literally going “i’m done with this” and refusing to write the remaining 50 to 100 pages required to give us a satisfactory ending.
But like I said above, this issue is negotiable as far as whether or not you’ll have a good time reading this book. As disappointed as I was with the ending and the occasional clunky relationship portrayals, I gave this book a four-star rating on Goodreads. Without those two problems, I would have given it five—but four stars is still pretty damn high. So if you’re a fan of horror and science-based fantasy, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s a page turner and a very fun read, with plenty of cinematic scenes that will stay with you long after you’re done reading.