Into the Drowning Deep: myths with teeth

Book cover: Into the Drowning Deep - Mira GrantThe Atargatis was found deserted and covered in blood. Footage showing all aboard being eaten by mermaids was dismissed as a hoax. But now Imagine Entertainment plan to send a second ship to prove the lovely ladies of the sea exist. What can possibly go wrong?

Let’s make this easy: Into the Drowning Deep is the book for you if:

  1. You like your myths to have sharp teeth
  2. You enjoy guessing who is going to get eaten
  3. You take exquisite glee in writing DOOOOOOOOOMED as your only reading notes. Maybe in calligraphy. Or blood. Or with little doodles showing characters dying horribly

Me, I have a love/hate relationship with disaster tales. I’m not usually wild about narratives that rely heavily on fixed tropes and inevitable outcomes, but add in some snazzy characters (no flat stereotypes, please) and a good twist, and I’m yours.

The twist here is the pitch: MERMAIDS. Fanged, clawed, poisonous, highly aggressive mermaids who hunt in packs and leave nothing but blood and slime behind them. I love stories that reject the romanticisation of once-terrifying mythological creatures and reinstate them in all their gory glory. I also love terror at sea (or deep space), so this one got me right between the eyes.

Our victims main course protagonists are a boat-load of scientists – only two of whom actually believe mermaids exist. The rest are along to enjoy a free trip on a swish cruise ship kitted out as a floating lab. Certain they’re not going to find mermaids in the deeps – and equally sure they’ll make breakthroughs in their own research – none are concerned about whether they’ll be alive to enjoy the glory.

It’s a set-up made in heaven, really. The expedition is being funded by Imagine Entertainment (a low-grade edutainment outfit) less as penance for the loss of their first ship, the Atargatis, and more to prove they didn’t fake the footage that survived it. They, at least, believe there’s something out there – something dangerous – although not fervently enough to put a huge amount of effort into health and safety.

So the security team are hand-picked to look good on camera. And the safety shutters don’t actually work – but that’s okay, engineering can fix them en route to the deeps, right? The ship’s best hope are the two professional hunters aboard, who have lied, bought and fought for their right to shoot and eat the world’s most dangerous and endangered predators. Yum, myth sushi.

Mira Grant does her usual excellent job of rapidly setting up context and thumbnailing her characters to get the story underway. I loved the casual ‘this is not a plot point it’s just who they are’ inclusion of characters who are neither white, straight, neurotypical nor entirely able-bodied. It could be abused for cheap Hollywood pathos (because what you really want on a death cruise is to be unable to hear the screaming, and unable to run away from the monsters) – instead, Grant shows how these things make no difference when killer mermaids are out to get you and passes acerbic comment on prevailing prejudices while she’s at it. Brains and a cool head are your best hope.

I had a couple of (minor) quibbles with Into the Drowning Deep, but neither were serious enough to interrupt the fun. For me, the opening act would have been stronger if I shared the scientists scepticism about the mermaids’ existence rather than being presented with them as fact from the first chapter. The subsequent snapshot of a yacht under attack works because you don’t see the predator (hello, favourite horror trope) – but that’s a pointless tease when you’ve already been told there are killer mermaids at large, unless there’s something else in play (there isn’t).

Fundamentally, I wanted the narrative to try harder to sell me on the idea that the footage from the Atargatis was a fake. It doesn’t – because Into the Drowning Deep is the sequel to a novella that tells the story of the Atargatis. I approached it as a stand-alone because Rolling in the Deep is practically impossible to get hold of, having had a limited release from Subterranean but no wider circulation.

As I said: it’s a relatively minor issue (and, yes, a bit unfair) and the plot steams cheerfully on through it without it really getting in the way. However, it leads directly to my second niggle: having made it crystal clear to the reader that there’s horror at sea, having none of the characters take it seriously seems absurd. Why doesn’t Theo Blackwell make the captain hold outside hostile waters until the shutters are fixed? Theo is quite clear on what’s waiting for them. Likewise, even when the first person dies and a state of alert is declared,  the researchers on board don’t take it very seriously. The scientific smorgasbord is ready to go.

This won’t bother everyone. I accept that some people love the narrative thrill of knowing it’s all going to go wrong, and watching a cast blunder into trouble. So do I – but I prefer it when it doesn’t feel like they’re being deliberately obtuse. In this case, I’d dearly like to see an epilogue where Imagine are up on murder (or at least manslaughter and negligence) charges for the inevitable and avoidable fatalities.

Still: these are small things, as I said to begin with. They didn’t stop me enjoying the rollercoaster, because there’s so much going on to relish, not least the mermaids themselves. Having taken their existence as read, Grant can have them appear early and swap the tension of whether they actually exist for the tension of how long have we got and what are they going to do to us (eat you, darling. Raw, and possibly wriggling). She does a wonderful job of making her mermaids feel alien too, regularly reminding us in small ways that they are highly-evolved, very intelligent beings. It’s not meant to be comfortable realising that you’re not actually at the top of the food chain. Having scientists intent on studying the things that were swimming up to eat them was also frankly brilliant.

If it feels a bit under-edited in places (the prose is sometimes clunky and repetitive; on-brand for a pseudoscience mockumentary, maybe, but awkward), it lacks for nothing in pace and excitement. I could see this from start to finish – like Feed, it would work brilliantly on screen – and I liked the main characters enough to be genuinely scared for them throughout. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the mishmash of science, tech and terror.