No one does mermaids like Mira Grant.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)
Did you really think we were the apex predators of the world?
“You still chasing mermaids, Vic?” he asked.
“I’ve never been chasing mermaids,” she said. “I’ve only ever been chasing Anne.”
I’m a huge Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire fan, and her mermaid stories are among my favorites. (Zombies are grrrrrrate, but no one does mermaids quite like Mira Grant.) When I saw the prequel to Into the Drowning Deep, a novella called Rolling in the Deep, I snatched it up…but, being a mere 123 pages long, it just left me wanting more: more science (fiction), more killer mermaids, more heart-stopping suspense, more blood and gore and viscera. Somewhere in between a short story and a full-length book, it lacked the crisp concision of the former and the delicious, drawn out horror of the latter.
Enter: Into the Drowning Deep, which is exactly what I was craving. Pro tip: read Rolling in the Deep as if it was a prologue to Into the Drowning Deep. It’ll feel so much more satisfying that way.
In 2015, the Atargatis set off on a scientific expedition to the Mariana Trench. Ostensibly, their mission was to find evidence of mermaids. Really, though, they were there to film a mockumentary on behalf of their employer, an entertainment network called Imagine (think: SyFy). The hoax quickly turned into a bloodbath when they discovered what they were/weren’t looking for.
The Atargatis was found six weeks later, floating several hundred miles off course, completely devoid of human occupants. The only clue as to what became of her two hundred crew and passengers was a smashed up control room and shaky film footage showing what looked like – but couldn’t possibly be – a mermaid attack.
Seven years have passed, and Imagine – led by its aging founder and CEO, James Golden – is determined to salvage its reputation … and maybe even make a killing (financially) in the process. In the years since the loss of the Atargatis and the ensuing court cases, Imagine has quietly been assembling a new ship and crew. With the August 24th launch date fast approaching, Imagine – represented by Golden’s right-hand man, Theodore Blackwell, estranged husband of none other than Dr. Jillian Toth, the sirenologist whose life’s work birthed the first voyage – is about to recruit the project’s star scientist.
After the loss of her older and only sister Anne at sea, Tory Stewart devoted her life – and scientific career – to hunting down the creatures who killed Anne, an up-and-coming reporter who hoped to use her time at Imagine as a springboard to better (and more SERIOUS) things. As a specialist in acoustic marine biology, Tory’s expertise could prove invaluable in locating and communicating with the mermaids – and the salaciousness of her connection to the Atargatis can only boost ratings.
The crew is rounded out by a dizzying roster of scientists – deep-water explorers, marine biologists and botanists, sign language experts, geographers, you name it – as well as a security team recruited and trained by Imagine and led by infamous big game hunters Jacques and Michi Abney.
Though the Melusine appears more prepared than its predecessor, can one ever really be ready to take on killer mermaids on their home turf? (Especially with corporate interests at the helm?)
Into the Drowning Deep is a mermaid story with teeth. Needle-thin ones crammed into a mouth that stretches open wider than any mouth should. There are plenty of tense moments that explode into violence and carnage, interspersed with some pretty cerebral scenes. The science fiction elements are great, from the exciting – yet very modest and grounded – technological advances humans have made just five years into our future, to the specifics surrounding the mermaids’ biology, evolution, and behavior. In this way, it has a lot in common with Grant’s Newsflesh series; think of it as Feed, but at sea, and with mermaids.
As per usual, the cast of characters is large and compelling and fairly diverse. There’s a F/F romance; one openly bisexual character; a television host who started cosplaying at the suggestion of her therapist, to combat social anxiety; a gross, stalkery Nice Guy ™ who – spoiler alert – totally gets what’s coming to him; three sisters – all of whom are scientists; two of them deaf – who speak ASL; and a number of POC. I especially loved the Wilson sisters (though their very similar names – Holly, Heather, and Hallie – while realistic, made them a little hard to keep straight) and the relationship between Tory and Luis, and Tory and Olivia (not a love triangle, don’t worry!).
I’m a vegan, and so any stories that incorporate nonhuman animals pique my interest (and, let’s be honest, usually my ire as well). Many of the scientists aboard the Melusine are conservationists; some, like Theodore and Dr. Toth, even have a background in animal activism, e.g. thwarting whaling ships (think: the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society). Though the Melusine is home to her fair share of doubters, once the evidence of mermaids becomes impossible to deny, arguments abound as to what they should do with this information: Wipe them out? Attempt to make contact? Turn tail and leave them be? Go home with irrefutable proof, to help with conservation efforts?
Of particular interest is the mermaids’ language, of which they have three: They communicate via sign, as well as vocally, and also seem to “borrow” snippets of sound from other inhabitants of the sea. Some of the scientists, like Tory, argue that these forms of communication indicate intelligence, arguing from a pretty anthopocentric perspective.
Worse, Grant uses the terms “sentience” and “intelligence” interchangeably, though they are not the same thing: sentience simply refers to an animal’s capacity for sensation or feeling. Intelligence is a much higher – and more subjective – bar.
“If they have a language—not just one language, but two languages, one spoken and one not—and if the complexity of their spoken language is anything like the complexity of their signing, they must be sentient,” said Tory. She sounded reluctant, like this was the last thing she wanted to be saying. “There’s no way they’re not.”
“Cats meow and know what they’re saying,” said Olivia. “Birds sing. That doesn’t make them smart.”
Cats and birds are sentient; so are the mermaids, regardless of whether or not they use language.
This is a pet peeve of mine, since sentience is the foundation for my own (and many others’) argument for animal rights: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?.”
The result is a somewhat convoluted but wholly expected view of nonhuman animals; one that purports to be welfare-based, but isn’t really. This is perhaps best exemplified by the three dolphins secretly recruited by Imagine to help locate and communicate with the mermaids. Raised in captivity, Twitter, Cecil, and Kearney have been promised their freedom in exchange for their cooperation – a term that, time and again, Theodore uses to justify their exploitation (and near-certain death). Yet this assumes that the dolphins are negotiating from a position of equal footing, when they’re not. They’re slaves. Property. Captive animals making a dangerous trade to regain their own self-agency, which shouldn’t be up for dispute to begin with.
To add insult to injury, there’s this passage, written from the dolphin’s perspective:
Dolphins were good. Humans had the potential for good, although they did not always make the effort. But the creatures born from blending the two, the claw-and-tooth children of the deepest depths…they were not good. They had never been good, would not know how to be if the opportunity was offered to them. They existed only to catch and snatch and devour. They sang no songs of their own, only songs stolen from the victims of their hunger. They were voiceless and cruel and terrible, and if not for them, the dolphins would never have needed to seek the shallows, or put themselves into the path of men, or choose the safety of cages over the freedom of the sea. Mankind could go hunting for mermaids as much as they liked. The dolphins had known where to find them all along.
[…] and when the human ship had come to catch and keep them, their response had been gratitude. Humans meant safety. Confinement, but safety.
Self-awareness and reason? Good. Happiness in slavery? Not so much.
Honestly, it just makes me feel yucky inside.
In summary, the many discussions about nonhuman animals are kind of a mixed bag. Some will have you pumping your fist while others might cause you to throw your Kindle across the room in disgust. Unless you’re like 96% of Americans, in which case you won’t see anything amiss here.
Also, what’s up with the date in the epilogue? Either my ARC has a pretty major typo, or there’s some wacky time travel stuff to be explored in the sequel!