(2017) Mira Grant, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 486pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50810-8
In 2015, the Imagine Network, sent out a ship to make a mockumentary on mermaids in the Mariana Trench. The ship ‘The Atargatis’ and it’s crew disappeared leaving only found footage of the crew being attacked and killed by unknown creatures. The sister of the presenter who went missing on the voyage, Victoria (Tory) Stewart is studying acoustic Marine Biology in 2022 when she and her friend and research partner Luis Martines receive an offer from Theodore Blackwell. Imagine is sending another research expedition to the Mariana Trench. They will all be part of a crew, including mermaid expert Dr Jillian Toth, presenter Oliva and her cameraman Ray, a big game hunter couple, the deaf scientist twins Holly and Heather Wilson and their older sister and sign language expert Hallie. The ship, the ‘Melusine’ sails into the Mariana Trench to find out the truth about what lurks there.
Admittedly, the idea of making mermaids scary may seem to be a challenge, but Mira Grant (a pen name of author Seanan McGuire) raises to it and comes up with creatures that are convincing using science to explain the features of the fairy tales, the hair, the limbs, the way they communicate. They feel plausible and frightening. However, I had some difficulties with the narrative they are in.
The influence of Jurassic Park and Michael Crichton does feel evident with the amount of scientific information and background that is supplied. While this does give verisimilitude to the story, at a point it feels that the narrative has slowed down while you wait for the monsters attacks to start. By this point the narrative that had started with Tory and Luis, stopped to introduce Dr Jillian Toth, then the rest of the main cast, the ship and then the Wilson sisters, who forgot to come onto the ship in view of Oliva, is feeling disjointed.
The difficulty is that the story feels as if it has nowhere to go other than the mermaids massing and attacking the boat. After the description of the footage, we get another short chapter where the mermaids eat the crew of a cooking show reality star's yacht in 2018, so that we know the monsters are real. But the problem is that you need to head into the mermaids territory before they start doing anything. So you get the build-up, but the sense of tension is weakened. A key fact about a fault in the ship's security keeps gets repeated as if the author was afraid that her readership will miss it.
Another problem with having a situation where the crew have to deliberately head into danger is how to get them into the confrontations with the monsters. Apart from the narrative’s mentions about a security system's failure, there are people who make mistakes like deliberately pushing down into the depths when told to come back up, leaving doors open and accidently putting their fingers on a bug that causes its stinger to come out. The influence of the novel Jurassic Park also becomes more pronounced in the climax, with re-occurring elements from that story. The ending leaves the doorway open for the possibility of sequels, but it’s hard to see what more can be done with the mermaids.
Clearly a lot of work, went into this and it is hard not to admire it. It’s just the weight of all of it pushes onto the narrative. There is the impression that the characters have to keep moving from information to emotion, with the latter feeling over-done in places. The hunter couple are particularly hard to accept as believable. As it is, it is an interesting science-based take on a creature of folklore but it feels constrained by the narrative and the location. Maybe it would just have been a more dramatic book if it was about the mermaids attacking the coastal town of Monterey, California described in the early part of the book.
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