This excellent dystopian fantasy has an unlikely setting: Coney Island, which has been invaded by 30,000 underwater aliens called the Alpha. The Alpha come in several different forms, some closer to humans than others, but all are extraordinarily strong, intelligent, and violent. They are consigned, as they have for some time before the book begins, to a tent city on the edge of a militarized, fenced-off section of the island that locals call the Zone. They are feared, hated, and abused both by local vigilantes and by politicians who use their presence to gain votes from the many Americans who follow their exploits on the media and the Internet. As the book opens, long-held suspicion threatens to flare into barely-controlled violence: it’s the day on which, by presidential order, Alpha teenagers begin to attend the local high school with the local kids.
Lyric Walker, the book’s narrator, is one of these kids. The daughter of a 6’6” cop and a mother with a mysterious background, Lyric has been told that for the good of her family, she must draw no attention to herself and ignore the Alpha kids – not to mention, the police, SWAT teams, plain-clothed officials from Homeland Security, and army personnel that have been amassed to keep order as the experiment begins. Supported by her smart-aleek best friend Bex and Bex’s admirer Tito Ramirez, Lyric tries to follow her instructions, but that’s not possible. In an attempt to keep the peace at school, she is told to work with Fathom, a handsome Alpha boy who turns out to be the crown prince of his people. Their difficult but developing friendship draws all three human kids into a slowly escalating war as local vigilantes, egged on by the governor, turn the school and Coney Island itself into a world of horrific violence.
Yet the closer Lyric comes to Fathom, the more she comes to realize that the Alpha are not invaders but refugees from a menacing threat under the sea – and that only by allying with them can Coney Island and the rest of the country be preserved. In a culminating scene, the Alpha exert their powers and protect the island from a tsunami engineered by the undersea enemy – by calling up an enormous wall composed of all the junk that the humans enjoying Coney Island’s iconic pleasures have thrown into the sea.
This is the first volume of a series that promises to be at least as good as (and a great deal more thoughtful than) such blockbusters as Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent.” Lyric is a real teenager as well as a heroine; Bex remains determined, mouthy, and loving in spite of her stepfather, who is so abusive that she often spends nights with Lyric’s family. Tito helps support his widowed mother by taking cell-phone videos of the Alpha that frequently appear on national news. Other characters are also convincingly portrayed, the pace is terrific, and – a marvel, given the number of dystopias currently in print – the book is original in both ideal and execution.
“Undertow” is available through Wilmington’s Pettee Memorial Library, Dover Free Library, Whitingham Free Public Library or Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington, and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar From Vermont,” are both set in Wilmington.