My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length: 320 pages
Release date: 8 March 2018
Two centuries ago, in the small, isolated town of Sparrow, 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 from the depths, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them down to their watery deaths.
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 or the fact that his arrival will change everything…
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.
“We wait for death. We hold our breath. We know it’s coming, and still we flinch when it claws at our throats and pulls us under.”
Oh hey, look, it’s Town of Salem: the novelisation. Replete with more mistrust, misinformation, bandwagoning and outright stupidity than you ever saw in the online game! Not to mention adultery, murder, intrigue and forbidden romance, things which might have happened on the Salem TV series, but less so in the strictly Puritan Salem of 1692 and certainly not on a webgame populated by more trolls than actual players.
All jokes aside, The Wicked Deep is a pretty good novel. It has all the staples of a mini Gothic thriller: the chills, the sense of unease, the slowly dawning horror, all set in an isolated small town overlooking the endless Pacific. The setting of Sparrow is perfect for a story that’s half witch-hunt, half forbidden love, steeped in superstition with a touch of siren folklore.
The fast pace is a welcome surprise. Honestly, I was afraid that this book would drag on forever in an effort to build up atmosphere, but that wasn’t the case. Things happen swiftly, and when there’s chronologically a lull in the action, days are compressed into a paragraph so we can get into the action again. The flashbacks, interspersed every few chapters throughout the book, are refreshingly brief and complement the present day timeline, gradually revealing the true story of the Swan sisters, the one untarnished by time and prejudice.
That backstory isn’t particularly imaginative, but it’s moving anyways. Penny’s ability to see the Swan sisters, combined with flashbacks from their perspective, allow Marguerite, Aurora and Hazel Swan to take on personalities of their own and become full-fledged characters, as much victims as they are villains. The major plot twist near the end is rather predictable but still executed well.
Where I’m really not sold is the romance. This is an instalove story. I wonder if the same editing that gave us solid fast-paced action also resulted in a lot of relationship development being cut out, because there’s a jarring moment where Penny and Bo abruptly flip from mistrustful almost-strangers tentatively making friends to full-on kissing. Sure, it’s right after she (view spoiler), but seriously, you think you’d have more important things to worry about at that point. For me, the chemistry just wasn’t there, and the Penny/Bo relationship reads like a case of “well, here are a male and female character around the same age, this is a YA book, so they’ve gotta fall in love.” Maybe more time spent developing trust and getting to know each other would have alleviated the stilted transition.
Thankfully, there’s enough suspense to stop The Wicked Deep from sliding into complete boredom. After all, instalove or not, this is still a novel about intrigue, death and the aforementioned stupidity. The requisite lynch mob is led by Lon Whittamer and Davis McArthurs, two self-installed witch hunters who peaked in high school and never fail to impress with their skeeviness. They’re unsurprisingly not very interesting characters (admittedly, that goes for most of the supporting cast), but interesting things do tend to happen when they’re around.
On the whole, The Wicked Deep is a lovely book. The beautiful cover accompanies writing that occasionally dips into gorgeous, backed up by a chilling tragedy shrouded in suspicion and mystery. As far as claustrophobic small town thrillers, you could do a lot worse.