Publisher: Disney Press.
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Release date: May 6th 2014.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
The first in a series of four epic tales set in the depths of the ocean, where six mermaids seek to protect and save their hidden world.
Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe.
When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin's arrow poisons Sera's mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin's master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world's very existence.
Far beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, the beloved princess of a vast kingdom is about to fulfill her destiny – it’s just not the one she’s been planning for.
Jennifer Donnelly is a master of her craft. Her writing is beautiful, powerful, unflinching and unforgettable. Her novels have won awards and received critical acclaim; in particular, her gritty contemporary-historical epic, Revolution, remains one of my all-time favourites. Needless to say, then, my expectations for Deep Blue were high, and I fully expected them to be surpassed. That is, until I started reading.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about Deep Blue – it’s just so different from what I’d imagined that it takes quite a bit of getting used to.
At the start of this book, Serafina is about to begin life as the official heir of the underwater kingdom Miromara. She’s a great character and very brave, but she’s also naïve and disappointingly immature. She’s whip-smart when it comes to reciting the history of her world, but ask her about her own sense of identity and she may not be so quick to answer. Her best friend Neela (who’s also a princess, natch) is more entertaining, but the few characteristics she’s given are general and sweeping, so as much as I liked her, I couldn’t help wishing she was a little more complex.
On the other hand, I absolutely loved Mahdi. I figured he’d be another unsurprising placeholder ‘oh look here’s the prince I hardly know that I’m about to marry’ character, but he’s so much more than that. Serafina and Mahdi go way back, having forged a relationship when they first met years before the events of the novel. They’ve never needed to be close – never needed to build a romance from scratch like an ordinary couple – because their marriage is arranged and ultimately inevitable, but they took the time to get to know each other anyway, and I adored that. They have genuine feelings for each other and enjoy each other’s company – or at least they used to. Sera hasn’t seen Mahdi in so long, she’s not sure if he’s held true to the promises they once made to each other. She’s heard rumours; of his wild partying and his bad attitude. He’s a couple of years older than she is and has more freedom, but even that can’t excuse the transformation he seems to have undergone since they last saw each other. He’s kind of a jerk when we meet him in the early chapters of Deep Blue – but he’s also hugely conflicted, torn between the decency Sera brings out in him and the reputation he’s developed as a reckless and popular prince, and that makes him one of the best characters in the entire book. He’s certainly the most interesting – and that’s really saying something, since Deep Blue has such a numerous cast, from the matronly Thalassa to Armando, the elusive outlaw leader of the Praedatori, and not forgetting the intriguing Blue or the menacing witches of Sera’s dreams.
Unfortunately, you often have to rely on tantalising flickers of potential from these characters rather than their presence on the page, as this is a book that moves quickly from one situation to another (once the opening streams of exposition are finished, of course). In this sense Deep Blue is something of a contradiction, as unbelievably, I seemed to enjoy characters who only made one or two key appearances more than I liked characters who were present throughout. There are a lot of unanswered questions left by these characters, and it's one of the reasons why I know I'll be reading the sequel.
The contradictions don’t end there. Deep Blue’s concept is to die for, full of danger, darkness and the irresistible call of fate, yet the tone and feel of Sera’s narration exactly the opposite. She behaves like a child, yet her opening conversation is one of in-depth political jargon with her flat and cartoonish mother. There are puns everywhere, which I found funny, but also awkward twists on perfectly usable words like girl (which becomes ‘merl’) and currency (‘currensea’), which I did not. I appreciate this is part of the world-building – which was for the most part fantastic - but the prevalence of terminology is like learning a second language, and it slows the story down. The pacing is unreliable, shooting from snail speed to lightning fast in all the wrong places. Instead of pulling me into the world of the text, it pushed me out. Thankfully, Donnelly’s description is as imaginative and illustrative as ever, and I couldn’t fault that.
Deep Blue may be a Little Mermaid for the 21st century, but it’s also the Little Mermaid on steroids. It’s full of strong female characters and features the kind of ethnic diversity all books should be aiming for these days, but then again, Sera sleeps on a bed of anemones set in the frame of a giant conch. She has a pet octopus named Sylvestre. She wears bejewelled, floaty dresses that surely impair her ability to swim – in fact, this is a book which flouts the laws of physics so often you have no choice but to blame it all on the magic and be done with it. Because magic is a very big part of Deep Blue, and while I loved the idea of songspells, I just couldn’t resist raising an eyebrow when some of its mermaids starting drinking tea underwater.
Where the magic really comes into its own, however, is in the plot. From the second I started reading Deep Blue, I got the feeling that this was the kind of book I would have loved to have read before I’d even started reading YA. The idea of six mermaids - did I forget to mention that characters named Ling, Astrid, Becca and Ava join Neela and Serafina later in the story? Don’t worry, the author almost forgets to mention it, too – with different powers taking part in a quest to save the sea is the stuff kids’ dreams are made of. And this is, I think the book’s fatal flaw: it’s being promoted as a dark and intricate fantasy for older YA readers, when really, it would be better off on the transitionary middle grade shelf.
In short: Deep Blue is a rich, engaging tale set in a fascinating underwater world, but it suffers from flat characters and an extremely misleading marketing campaign. It’s the kind of book that makes you think ‘You know what? This could have been so much better’. I’ll probably read the sequel, but in future I think I’ll only be recommending it to well-versed middle grade readers or YA fans who are sure they know what they’re in for.