About a year ago, right around that awful dark period of my early post-grad life, I stumbled upon this eye-catching novella by a familiar author. Rolling in the Deep (yes, exactly like the Adele song) by Mira Grant had a concept that I believe wasn’t (and still isn’t) explored nearly as much as its frilly, Hollywood-esque counterpart – man-eating mermaids. As someone who lives in a tropical country and has lived within reasonable distance from the sea for her entire life, I was intrigued. Mermaids have always had a special place in my heart and is a staple in my country’s telenovela culture (seriously, there was a time when mermaid teleseryes dominated the local TV networks *cough even though they essentially had the same story rehashed a billion times over cough*).
After years of seeing mermaids exclusively as these beautiful, magical dames of the sea that just can’t help themselves around human men (for some reason), it was with great satisfaction to see them portrayed as the bloodthirsty, apex predators of the deep waters as I’ve always suspected them to be. I mean it. Mermaids just can’t possibly look as conventionally “human” pretty as mainstream media depicts them. Things that live and thrive in the deep bellies of the sea look monstrous. Their environment dictates them to have grotesque and dangerous bodies. Just look at the angler fish. They’re terrifying! It makes absolutely no sense that mermaids would have human features instead of practical, hideous anatomies.
But I digress.
I devoured Rolling in the Deep in one sitting and could not wait for the novel to come out. Rolling was the story of how a pseudo-science channel, Imagine Network, sent a hodgepodge of experts in the cruise ship Atargatis to set sail to the Mariana Trench. Though billed as a serious attempt to find and document the existence of mermaids in the deepest part of the ocean, no one on the Atargatis really believed they’d find mermaids. And they were right. They didn’t find mermaids. Mermaids found them. And ate them. All of them.
Into the Drowning Deep is set seven years after the tragedy of Atargatis, starring the sister of one of the ship’s victims and a boatload (literally) of other interesting characters, all of whom aim to prove to the world whether the carnage of the failed cruise ship was a hoax or not. Spoiler: it’s not.
Although the plot is essentially the same with Rolling, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading Drowning. There was a sort of B-movie feel to the whole story, much like with the novella. You know that the man-eating mermaids are coming and the humans are pretty powerless against them. It’s very much like a cheap monster movie where you’re just waiting for the characters to be killed off one by one. Hell, the story even makes a point of giving the biggest asshole characters the most painful deaths. Talk shit about your ex? Poisoned and bleed to death. Spend your entire life illegally hunting down big game? Die a slow and agonizing death, again by unknown toxins. Shun a deaf girl? Ripped to shreds by mermaids.
It’s outrageous. It’s insane. It’s a bloody pandemonium. And it’s absolutely glorious.
If you have a insatiable appetite for well-written gore and mayhem, Drowning is going to be right up your alley. Even though the bigwig characters kept repeating that the second exploration, the Melusine, isn’t going to be like the first because they’ve learned from their mistakes, almost the same thing happens in this book. The only aspect that separates this book from its prequel is that there are survivors. Not a lot considering how many were involved in the Melusine. And, yes, the main characters do fight off the kinda boss mermaid at the end… but only sort of?
Honestly, the ending was so rushed and came out of nowhere that it fell flat for me. I hope this won’t come off as too spoiler-y but I just want to say it. They. Flipped. A. Switch. That’s it. That’s what hundreds of pages of fighting, of killing, of running around to figure out the science of these mermaids, all of that culminates to. FLIPPING. A SWITCH.
Writing and Tone
Even though the tone is consistently macabre, you also kind of feel that the author, Mira Grant, isn’t making this story as something to take too seriously. Which isn’t to say that the story is dumb or anything. On the contrary, I rather appreciate how much research Grant must have done to achieve an authentic scientific voice. But when it comes right down to it, nothing much apart from people being eaten by mermaids happens in this book. And this book is pretty long, around 500 pages, so it had more than enough pages to have more. It really is just a monster movie with great prose.
I did, however, learn an awful lot about the ocean and its creatures. Most of the characters are oceanographers (the best in their field… though some of them are one of three of their field so there’s that) and they’re always spouting off about some trivia about the deep blue see. It’s interesting but it gets old pretty fast. Especially since Mira Grant has this tendency to be a bit… repetitive.
Drowning makes use of several POV characters by chapter (a little bit like the A Song of Ice and Fire series) and, for the most part, it’s the perfect way to tell a fairly simple story with a large cast of characters. But, here’s the thing that Grant does in every chapter with a minor POV character: she introduces you to them every damn chapter as if you’re meeting them for the first time.
Characters that we’re given solid exposition during their first appearance get even MORE exposition some ten chapters later. And it’s not even that that additional information moves the plot onward or anything. For instance, there’s this couple, bounty hunters, that we’re told from the very beginning are quite amoral and bloodthirsty. Their first introduction tells you everything – and I do mean everything since they’re the least fleshed out characters in the book – that you really need to know about them. But every time those two pop up in a chapter, we’re told over and over how insane they are, how they’re poachers that kill big game for the thrill of it, et cetera et cetera. It got to the point that I’d just skip over those long paragraphs re-iterating what we already know about the characters.
It’s a shame that the book focuses so much on character exposition. The repetition kind of bogged down what was a pretty effective pace the book had.
Characters and Diversity (Bi Representation!!!)
I’m kinda burying the lead here but I couldn’t talk about this earlier because, ultimately, the main character’s sexuality wasn’t her entire character so I felt that focusing on that would be missing the author’s point (if that makes sense). Tory (the MC) only hinted at her bisexuality almost halfway into the story so we got to know her as a person first and not as the “bisexual character.” It was a real pleasant surprise, I tell you.
The book’s cast of characters are quite diverse but not in a forced, tick-all-the-boxes type of diversity. Though characters like the Wilson twins (deaf scientists) stand out because of their disability, they’re painted more as these brilliant scientists that just happen to be deaf. I’m not well versed in the topic of diversity but I still appreciated the varied cast.
However, because the book features so many characters (and all of them are quite distinct from one another), there were quite a few minor characters that barely grew as characters. I talked about the big game hunter couple (they love to kill… that’s it. that’s their character arc) but there’s also another couple that I felt deserved more depth. The sirenologist and her estranged husband were an interesting duo but every scene they’re in felt identical from the last. When they’re not bickering with each other, they’re talking about how little they know about mermaids. Every time.
A Lot of Build Up But Nowhere to Go
Another thing that I was a bit disappointed in this book was the steady build up to a climax that didn’t really happen.
Throughout the novel, you’d have these scientists scratching their heads after trying to examine these mermaid creatures and getting absolutely nothing. Some specialists would say cryptic things and all but look into the camera for dramatic effect. You just get this feeling that something big was going to happen, a revelation about these mermaids that would change everything. You’d plow through page after page, eager to learn the BIG TWIST that could save or doom them all.
But you get nothing. Except a character flipping a switch.
The last few pages conveniently summarize the end without even using a POV character, all the while hinting the plot of the next book. It’s a little bit of a let down, right?
There was this recurring foreshadowing of certain characters warning other characters not to tell the wacky scientists too much in case the latter try to do something crazy that could jeopardize everyone on the ship. The scientific community, we’re told over and over and over, isn’t very merciful and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there so scientists have to do whatever it takes. Guess what they end up doing though?
Anyway, even though I seem to have more complaints about this book than praises, I did seriously enjoy Into the Drowning Deep. What I loved about it the most is Mira Grant’s vision of realistic mermaids. Deadly but hauntingly beautiful. Disturbing but enchanting. The kind of creatures that could have been mistaken as gorgeous sea ladies by stranded sailors and pirates.
I especially appreciated how the killer mermaids have no other motivation for killing humans other than for survival. Even the book recognizes this at some point. Unlike cheap monster flicks, humans didn’t actively do anything to earn the mermaids’ wrath. No chemical spillages. No disturbing their supposedly peaceful domain. The mermaids just see humans as prey that they can eat to fill their perpetually hollow stomachs. The lack of reason why the mermaids hunt the humans is terrifying because it means that there is no “one solution” to save them all. Except maybe the final boss battle, er, skirmish. Barely even that.
Anyway, if you’re not weirdly satisfied by gratuitous descriptions of gore you might not enjoy this book. When it comes right down to it, Into the Drowning Deep is just hundreds of pages of humans being ravaged by sirens. There’s some insight into the similarly bloodthirsty world of scientists too but it’s the mermaids that are the main players.
I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads because I loved it but I still recognize that it didn’t have as much substance as I would have liked.