Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Dazzling Debut: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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I first learned about Sabrina Imbler (they/them) last year when my girlfriend and I traveled to Seattle to watch the UConn Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet 16. Whenever I travel, I like to visit a local bookstore, which is how we ended up in the gorgeous Elliott Bay Book Company, a woman and queer owned business located in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When I asked one of the booksellers what LGBT books she recommended, she enthusiastically suggested Imbler’s gay volcano chapbook Dyke (geology) and a signed copy (Imbler’s name flanked by two cute goldfish) of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Two gorgeous books by a queer person of color? I was elated.

Imbler is a writer and science journalist with a gift for storytelling. How Far the Light Reaches is organized into ten essays wherein Imbler masterfully weaves facts about sea creatures and phenomena with meditations on survival, identity, body image, family, relationships, and community. While the essays stand alone and can theoretically be read out of order, they have a clear throughline. As a reader who began How Far the Light Reaches with limited knowledge of marine biology, I was shocked by how many facts I retained from each essay. Imbler’s essays are crafted with care and intentionality. They don’t just state facts about each sea creature, they reflect on their essence, treating each with reverence.

In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” Imbler introduced readers to Graneledone boreopacifica and highlighted one of the most renowned of these purple octopuses: a mother who starved herself for 53 months (four and a half years) while she focused on the task of brooding her eggs. Imbler interspersed reflections on their mother’s sacrifices and on how Imbler learned to find their own body desirable through reveling in queer bodies.

In “Pure Life,” Imbler marveled at deep sea dwellers—vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs—which survive by using chemosynthesis for energy in the absence of sunlight.  Imbler likened hydrothermal vents in the ocean to queer spaces and communities—both representing oases providing rest, nourishment, and safety: “Life always finds a place to begin anew, and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

In “Hybrids,” Imbler juxtaposed their biracial identity (half Chinese, half White) with a hybrid butterflyfish, the offspring of two different species. Imbler examined how The Question: “What are you?” is itself an act of taxonomy. They also reflected on the irony of their frustration with The Question, but also their endless curiosity about other mixed people.

In a word, How Far the Light Reaches is spectacular. The more I reflect upon it, the more I love it. I read it over the course of a few days, but Imbler’s writing is so thought-provoking, you may want to savor the book over time. I really hope Imbler will write another book, but in the meantime, you can check them out at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they cover creatures.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, lack of consent, rape, body mutilation, racism, body image, disordered eating, and animal death/harm.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Meditation On Grief Through a Speculative Lens: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

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I’ve seen this book mainly categorised as horror but after reading it, it feels more like a speculative fiction with elements of horror and sci-fi in it. This book transcends genres: that’s the mark of a phenomenal read! 

I went into this story expecting an action-packed, horror-strewn plotline and found something much better and resounding. Leah, a marine biologist, is married to Miri and embarks on a deep-sea mission from which she doesn’t return for six months. It’s a mission that goes horribly wrong and alters her life inextricably. The story is told from alternating points of view of Leah and her wife, Miri. 

The first portion of the book portrays the slow and gradual deterioration of their relationship and the silences that hover around them. The writing style is mundanely descriptive and intimate but charged with unspoken emotions. The author spotlights and emphasises their dynamic inner worlds and feelings and their reaction to this traumatic event. 

The chapters are interspersed with haunting and heartfelt past memories of the couple that throw into stark relief their dire situation in the present. Miri feels that the only way to move forward is to look back and hold the past as a beacon of light to guide their enigmatic future. This new unprecedented future seems endless, strange and indescribable, and in contrast, the past feels tangible and comforting. So she collects pieces of her past, holds them close to her heart, and soldiers on. 

There is a constant tone of nostalgia and a sense of something that is lost and irretrievable. Miri tries her best to be there for her wife through her transformations and it takes a toll on her. For Leah, she carries the horrors that she faced under the sea to her life on the land as well. The sea haunts her days and nights alike. Leah’s experience under the sea isolates her and brings her face-to-face with a truth that lodges itself into her body and continues to take charge of her. It is interesting to witness the struggles of the wives parallelly. 

Some of the chapters in the book make brilliant comments on grief and its enduring hold. It shows us how grief can transform us, either for the better or for the worse. Apart from the sea experience, I think the book also comments on how some traumatic events can really shake the foundations of our lives and relationships and permanently set us adrift. Also, I found the naming of the parts in this book very interesting and accurate. It documents how Leah gradually becomes one with the ocean and loses her grip on the land. 

The last portion of this book is filled with suspense and it takes on a frenzy sort of urgency. Even though I predicted the ending, it completely crushed me. It reminded me of the movie Shape of the Water. As long as you don’t dwell on the technicalities of the plot, the story is heartbreaking and profound. The book gets sadder as it progresses and then suddenly it plunges you into an abyss of absurdity and terror. I was not ready for it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! The entire reading experience feels like a poetic submersion! 

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

the covers of The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Maggie reviews A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

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Last year, I was delighted by A Marvellous Light, a gay murder mystery/romance in which Robin, a newly-made Baronet, is appointed to the wrong government office and is accidently drawn into the hidden world of magical society when shadowy forces think he knows more than he does. With a curse mark creeping up his arm and no clue how magic works, Robin must work with his liaison, Edwin Courcey, to unravel the conspiracy he’s been plunged into and save England’s magic. It was a delightful book, and now Freya Marske is back for round two in A Restless Truth with Robin’s sister Maud, who is determined to play her role in the events started in the previous book and not let her brother down. With England’s magic at stake, Maud must prove herself and also take her own turn with romance.

Sent to America to escort an elderly lady who knows a piece of the puzzle back to England, Maud instead finds herself embroiled in murder, mystery, and mayhem on the high seas. Not a magician herself, Maud recruits allies to her cause, including Violet Debenham, a newly-minted heiress returning to England from a scandalous stage career, and Lord Hawthorne, a disaffected nobleman who has given up his magic but can’t escape being entangled in this mystery. Maud is reliant on them for magical spells and knowledge, but her wits, stubbornness, and audacity are her own, and she’s not about get off the boat in England without a success to bring to her brother.

This book was a fun romp from beginning to end. Maud is smart and daring, and her instant attraction to Violet is a surprise to both of them. I started laughing at her “Wait…girls are an option?” moment. Violet joins Maud’s quest to begin with mostly because it seems like it will be fun, but soon she finds herself with more feelings than she expected and wanting to live up to Maud’s expectations. The fact that they are on an ocean liner creates a semi-protected bubble where they can explore their feelings without too much dodging of society. I also greatly enjoyed that, while Violet is the more jaded and experienced half of the pair, Maud is the one who takes the lead the most often. It is Maud’s force of personality that pulls together their little investigative band, and I really enjoyed her as a character. Together with the escalating danger of the murder mystery, I had a great time.

In conclusion, you’ll probably want to pick up the first book, A Marvellous Light, before you read A Restless Truth so that you are familiar with the conspiracy that Maud is caught up in. But as a murder mystery on an ocean liner, this book was a high stakes adventure from beginning to end.  It’s a fun and charming read, and I love Freya Marske’s historical magical society.  I do rec them as a read to brighten any week.

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.

Larkie reviews The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

three covers of The Gracekeepers

In a world where the seas have risen and land is the rarest, most precious commodity, most of the population live on boats, constantly wandering and trying to find their next meal. This setting is where we find a circus, a graveyard, and two women stuck in situations they would rather not be: North, bear trainer in the circus, is engaged to the ringmaster’s son and destined to leave the circus, the only place she has ever thought of as home. Meanwhile, Callanish lives in a graceyard, performing funerals for those who die at sea. As the plot slowly unravels, we slowly uncover secrets and quiet interpersonal dramas that sit just beneath the surface of a tight-knit crew who rely on each other for their survival.

Where this book really shines is in the atmosphere. There’s no lack of poetic descriptions of the sea, the circus, and the fine balance between life and death. The world itself is complex, and as beautiful as it is cruel, and we get to see it through the eyes of most of the major characters, both protagonists and antagonists, which gives us a full view from all different perspectives. This book feels very meditative, rather than plot heavy, and I’ve always had a soft spot for any slow love affair with the sea. If you’re looking for a quick paced adventure, then this is not the book for you; it’s much more of an ethereal exploration of how people’s lives are shaped by their circumstances, and how they can find agency even within strict social roles.

I do wish we could have seen more of Callenish and North’s relationship. They’re from different worlds, and while it was interesting seeing how they circled each other and slowly came together, they didn’t actually have enough time together to explore their dynamic. I loved the tiny bit that we did get to see of this, and I thought it really drew everything together nicely at the end, but it did leave me wanting more. Also, while we got a lot of different perspectives from lots of different damplings, we didn’t see much of the landlocker side of things — or how Callenish comes to embrace her role in between land and sea. I wanted to know more about the merpeople and the changes in the world, and how humanity might progress with its relationship to the sea — all things that we got hints of throughout the book, but it was never really brought up. I guess this lack of information adds somewhat to the air of mystery, but it really just left me with a lot of questions.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but it definitely has a very specific mood to it which might not appeal to everyone. If you like world building and plots with lots of room to explore on your own, then you’ll love this book. However, if you need everything to be tied up, this might be more frustrating than anything else. I liked it, but it’s definitely got more atmosphere than plot.

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Mo Springer reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Seven years ago, the voyage of the Atargatis ended in death, tragedy, and mystery. The ones left behind, watching the footage from their conference rooms and research labs, can only do thing to avenge the death: solve the mystery.

Are there really mermaids in the Mariana’s Trench?

Will they kill us?

The horror of the mermaids was very well done, and I was genuinely on the edge of the my seat reading this at certain parts. It did a good balance of physical, external horror of there being creatures hunting down the point-of-view characters while at the same time, there was excellent psychological horror of waiting for the monsters to find them, having death all around them, and trying to come to terms with their own actions in this crisis.

This an ensemble cast with a lot of characters that get their fair share of time to tell their story, history, and version of events. Tory is a scientist whose sister died on the Atargatis and is on this voyage to try to prove mermaids are real to bring some sense of justice and peace for her loss. Olivia is the personality in front of the camera to explain the science to viewers and investors back home. There is a wide range of more characters, but it would take too space to review all of them and I would rather focus on the sapphic content.

The romance between Tory and Olivia managed to feel engaging and heartwarming while in the shadow of the ongoing fear and horror of the situation. The book is realistic in that they aren’t going to have much time to grow close and intimate in the face of death. At the same, it is believable that the shock and grief of their shared experiences would bring them closer together.

The ending was not a huge bang, which I honestly appreciated. A lot of time in science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. there’s this feeling that there needs to be a big, huge, bombastic climax that you would have in a Hollywood blockbuster. But I don’t think that’s always necessary for a book that’s in genre fiction. And here that works so well, because the book is so scientific and gets into the nitty-gritty details of the science that is being fictionalized. That scientific foundation went hand in hand with the more toned-down ending.

I enjoy horror about 50% and thankfully this book was part of the half of the genre I liked. The ensemble cast was big, but not too big that I couldn’t become invested in their individual arcs. The world building was magnificent, and the science was clearly well researched. I also love information about the ocean, so that was another fun part for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any horror and science fiction fans.