book review: the wicked deep

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Simon Pulse, 320 pp.
Published March 6, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from Simon & Schuster in exchange for my honest review.
Summary (via Goodreads): Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…

Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.

Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.

Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.

Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.

But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.

My thoughts: In a reversal of the norm, I want to get what I didn't enjoy out of the way first. For about half of The Wicked Deep, I thought I might have to give up. I didn't like Penny Talbot and I especially didn't like her voice as the one through which much of the story was told. But then! Deep into the novel's middle section, matters took a sharp left turn. Instead of struggling I was speeding through every page, my prior difficulties forgotten. It was such a pointed change that I nearly went back to the beginning to re-read what had given me some trouble. I didn't, though, because now I couldn't wait to reach the end and learn how Ernshaw would finish up.

While I try to frontload my reviews with positives, it was important for me to address my struggles first in case new readers encounter them as well. I am so happy I continued on—the things that tried my patience had a narrative purpose which paid off splendidly. And now, moving on to the rest of the review...

The Wicked Deep is much darker than I had expected, perhaps even darker than it acknowledges within the text. Sparrow and its inhabitants treat their circumstances with a chilling degree of resignation; that they manage to profit off an annual flood of tourists for 'Swan season' only compounds the frightful effect. Ernshaw's writing brings out the warring atmospheres of terror and nonchalance. Eschewing any sly winks toward the fantastical, it keeps the curse firmly grounded in reality. The coastal Pacific Northwest is almost a character unto itself, populated with grey drizzle and choppy waves that set a foreboding tone.

Because much of The Wicked Deep depends on mystery for momentum, it's almost impossible to discuss the characters without spoiling some major twists. If you want to know my thoughts just highlight the text below; otherwise, skip down to the next paragraph!

Penny felt tremendously underdeveloped until her (repeated) possession by Hazel, the youngest Swan sister, was revealed. (This was the turning point of the novel for me!) After it comes to light that the Penny we met at the start has been smothered and silenced, her thoughts replaced by those of a witch who can access her every memory, the incongruities of the intervening pages make perfect sense. Suddenly the fates of two girls, not one, hang in the balance; stakes double while guaranteeing that one of the two cannot endure. It's a deliciously dark twist that forces you to rethink everything you've read and while I'm hunting for the time to re-read The Wicked Deep, I'm going to applaud Ernshaw for such a bold and satisfying twist.

As a window into Sparrow's history, the three Swan sisters jump off the page, colorful and distinct. Their lives unfold through short, entr'acte chapters that elaborate on what we already know: two hundred years ago, they were unjustly drowned as witches. Immortality has changed each girl in different ways. Some relish their yearly vengeance while others have grown weary, yet the only alternative is true and lasting death. Is that any more or less fair than the suffering inflicted on all the future residents of Sparrow? As the story unfolds it's increasingly clear that 'fair' is not necessarily a guiding principle in the case of witches and curses.

Only one thing continued to bother me until the novel's end: The Wicked Deep includes a strong case of insta-love. However, this fairy tale love doesn't necessarily garner a happily ever after (I suspect every reader's feelings will differ on this count). Despite the sudden development, I was pleased that Ernshaw did what was best for the characters rather than taking an easier way out. It still remains one of my least liked tropes, though, and I wish the relationship had developed more gradually.

The Wicked Deep surprised me, and pleasantly so. While I was looking forward to a standard modern fantasy romp, I was instead treated to a dark and twisty tale that unveils a great deal of Ernshaw's confidence as a debut author. Its fog-choked atmosphere fits perfectly with the lingering traces of winter ceding to spring, and should delight genre fans who fear that they've 'read it all before'.

RATING: ★★★★

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