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We said ‘pretty women in the sea,’ and that was good enough, because who doesn’t want there to be pretty women in the sea? We turned monsters into myths, and then we turned them into fairy tales. We dismissed the bad parts. We were too interested in… in… in pretty women in the sea.

Mira Grant—an alias of Seanan (pronounced SHAWN-in) McGuire—is one of the more popular fantasy/horror writers to spring into the genre spotlight. Her Newsflesh Trilogy, following a post-zombipocalypse political blogger, is incredibly popular; the first volume won a Hugo award. One of my friends has pressured me forever to read the series, and while I borrowed them years ago intending to read and review them, I’m kind of swamped by overdose of zombie in every other form of media/entertainment available (movies, TV, comics, games, …). Luckily, Grant writes several other non-zombie series, and has penned several horror/fantasy novellas—such as Rolling in the Deep, a novella recently release from Subterranean Press.

Subterranean Press - 2015 - Julie Dillon.

Subterranean Press – 2015 – Julie Dillon.

For a channel “famed for terrible movies about giant spiders,” news that the Imagine Network would switch to producing documentaries was quite a shock. The resulting documentaries, of course, blur the line between fact and fiction ala Discovery Channel’s Megalodon, exploring for proof of cryptids and monsters. Their next episode sends a group of deep-sea scientists on the cruise ship Atargatis to the Marianas Trench, hoping to prove the existence of mermaids. When the cruise liner is found weeks later, drifting abandoned at sea, not one of the passengers or crew is aboard. There are signs of struggle, and some minor damage to the ship, and a striking amount of human blood in the bilge. But no answer to the fate of the missing persons—until now.

This is the story of the Atargatis, pieced together from the footage found on the many abandoned film cameras. It follows the ship’s many passengers and crew—the female captain and her deaf first mate, a duo of gay biologists, the Imagine host and her cameraman, the Blue Seas mermaid troupe brought along to spice up the documentary. The bulk of the passengers are legitimate scientists, hoping to use the trip as a chance to strike it big and make a discovery in their field. They expected to make any scientific discovery other than the one they did—the one they were hired to undertake. Does this offer inconclusive proof of the existence of mermaids? Imagine suggests you continue watching and form your own conclusions—Caution: this important footage is quite graphic, and may not be suitable for minors.

It’s revealed almost immediately that no-one survived this voyage, thanks to snippets from Imagine’s documentary about the documentary. Knowing every character is destined to die—or at least vanish—is an interesting move. On the one hand, this frame story takes away the “surprise” at the end, with all the characters predestined for death. On the other hand, for horror in general, you ought to know before purchase that there’s a good chance most-if-not-all characters will die, and acknowledging it early on makes the mystery not “who will die” but “how they will die.” Grant excels at scene-setting and characterization, too, so it’s easy to become drawn into the story and have a slim hope that someone will, somehow, escape. The horror begins building with some unknown presence in the ocean and a few missing passengers and crew, and climaxes with a gory and chilling crescendo.

Grant spends the bulk of the story following her characters, building up their relationships and giving them some depth—not a whole lot, but enough that you’ll care about them when the dying starts. And when the blood starts flowing, characters die off with rough abandon—in this 128-page novella, over a hundred pages are buildup for 15-20 pages of action. I think it was necessary to make the characters sympathetic so that the finale has an emotional impact, but other readers may find it long and drawn out. On the prose front, Grant’s writing is clean, competent, and unobtrusive—there’s a few brilliant lines in the tale, but for the most part it’s pretty average. I found it a bit too sanitized and “TV-ready;” hopefully one of these days Grant will be able to snag a movie deal. More disappointing were a couple of very obvious science blunders: I don’t think “Mertensian mimicry” means what you think it means, and any creature—be it fish, whale, or human—suffers decompression sickness (e.g., the bends) when rushed to the surface from hundreds of feet down.

Rolling in the Deep is a novella I found myself liking but not loving. It’s well-executed, has good characterization from its diverse cast, and offers a solid twist on mermaid mythology, but I found it too straightforward: neither writing nor plot offer any surprises, especially since the fate of the Atargatis is known from page one. It certainly offered some thrills and chills, so it more than met expectations as a horror novella, and despite the brevity of the gory finale it was one of the story’s real strengths. Strong characterization and immediate scene-setting were also key assets. Perhaps its greatest success was turning mermaids from “pretty women in the sea” into monsters again—horrific creatures that lured sailors to their deaths.

Book Details
Title: Rolling in the Deep
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $4.99
ISBN/ASIN: 159606708X / B00VR2L60S

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