One of my guilty pleasures after finishing a book is to head over to Goodreads and read some of the one and two star reviews. Even if I loved the book, I find people’s sass hilarious. When I hate the book, I find myself nodding enthusiastically and saying ‘yaaaas, guurl,’ to the reviewer like a lunatic. It was through this ritual that I discovered that The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw, one of the most hyped books of 2018, had left a path of disappointment and dissatisfaction in its wake last year.
It turns out that this book had left book bloggers – who are more in tune to hype surrounding new releases – and recreational readers alike wanting more. After finishing the book, I do understand where they are coming from, but I have my own thoughts about the issues with this book, and at the end of the day (page?) I enjoyed it and can honestly say I don’t feel let down by it.
It’s actually a good lesson in not getting caught up in the promise that a new release is going to be the best thing since sliced bread and reading it will be a life changing experience. It’s what publishers want potential readers to think of course, but I can’t help wondering if when book bloggers feel disappointed by a book that was absolutely everywhere before its release, it ends up doing more harm than good. If you have no (or low) expectations of a book before going into it, you’re less likely to rage review when you feel as though you’ve been lied to.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s get into my thoughts. Please be aware that as my main criticism is about the big reveal, parts of this review will be dark and full of spoilers. I’ll point out the spoilery parts so you can avoid them if you want to read The Wicked Deep without knowing the ending.
We begin with our main character, Penny, who lives in the seaside town of Sparrow, Oregon. Sparrow is haunted by three sisters who were drowned 200 years ago when they were found guilty of being witches. Every summer for two weeks the three sisters inhabit the bodies of three young girls and exact their revenge on the town by luring young boys out into the harbour to their deaths.
The townspeople have come to accept their fate and have turned the event into a tourist attraction. Sparrow’s schools let students out early for the summer to enjoy the festivities, and the town swarms with tourists for the two weeks leading up to the summer solstice. The town’s male teen population, who are the most affected by the Swan sisters’ return, are equal parts intrigued and terrified by Swan season. They hold parties to celebrate the start and end of the season, and spend the two weeks not only trying to stay alive, but accusing unsuspecting girls of being Swan sisters, which has led to deadly consequences in the past.
Penny Talbot is set up to be an intriguing main character: residing on an isolated island owned by her family, her dad missing and presumed dead, and her mum, a psychic, suffering from mental health issues. Enter Bo, the bad boy newcomer with a mysterious past, who seems to show up out of nowhere, and ends up working on the island where Penny lives. Right away we’re wondering if Penny is a Swan sister, and there are clues that point both ways. I was thinking that it’s too cliché’ and obvious for that to be the twist, so I started the book holding out hope for an ending I didn’t see coming. I’m pretty gullible, so it’s not a hard task to surprise me.
The writing in this book was just perfect for me: straightforward and easy to understand yet moody without being flowery. I thought the writing itself was great and it didn’t fall into my number one pet peeve: being repetitive. Despite my issues with the the twist, I was invested in this book to the end, and found it an enjoyable read. The plot was interesting and thinking on it after finishing the book, it really had potential to be surprising and shocking. To me, the way it was done was too flawed. If I had been a beta reader for this book I would have suggested changing it to third person, or even making the main character Bo. There could have been so much more to explore, and more mystery to solve if Bo was our narrator. That is of course my very professional opinion as someone who hasn’t written or published a book. More on this later in the spoilery bit.
Other reviewers mention this too, but the setting was incredibly atmospheric and gave off those touristy seaside vibes that remind me of my childhood holidays. I’ve long been fascinated with seaside settings, and this hit the spot for me. The talk of the weather was a reminder that wind and rain is constant along the coast, and added to the creepiness and suspense that the author is going for. I could picture the town in my mind, even more so during the flashback scenes which take place 200 years in the past.
The Characters (minor spoilers)
Well the book ends with us not knowing anything about Penny as a person at all. Her dad is dead, her mum is grieving, she has a best friend whose mum owns a cake store. That’s all I can tell you. It’s hard to pull of a compelling story with a main character that readers aren’t given the chance to connect to. Personally, I’m neutral on Penny: I couldn’t love her, but I don’t hate her either.
Look, Bo was fine. He came to Sparrow to find out what happened to his brother. He knows stuff about farming. His brother was a bit of a dick. Ummm, that’s about it really. Oh and he has eyes the colour of the forest after it rains, urgh!
The Swan sister flashbacks (written in third person) are the best parts of the book. Even though they make up a smaller section of the book, I really found the Swan sisters interesting, with distinct traits and flaws. When Marguerite and Aurora Swan inhabit two girls in the present day and appear in the narrarive, it gets exciting for a moment. I would probably read a story just about them set in the time when they were alive.
All the side characters are meh. Even the best friend who shows a bit of spunk when she sets one of the Swan sisters free unknowingly, didn’t get enough airtime to be considered interesting.
The Love Interest (trigger warning and minor spoilers)
Penny and Bo were bland characters, and their love story was equally bland. However, it’s worth pointing out, as many others have done, that when sexy times ensue, Penny isn’t in control of herself, and this throws up some questions about consent. It’s not something that bothers me personally, but I can definitely see the issues with it, and understand why some readers may find it triggering.
The Twist (major spoilers and ranting)
You guessed it: Penny is a damned Swan sister. I’m surprised that the reviews I’ve read haven’t identified this particular problem, but essentially: how can you have a big reveal about the identity of a character when the story is written in first person? We eventually find out that Penny has been taken over by Hazel Swan, and this occurred the night that Penny and Bo spent together at the beach party, which occurs very early in the book. However, in order to preserve the big reveal, Shea Ernshaw lets Hazel and Penny talk and act exactly the same, even in private moments with the reader. The fact that before the reveal Penny/Hazel just thinks of her mother as ‘mom’ and then after it’s ‘Penny’s mom,’ really was the undoing of this book for me. The twist is for the reader, not the main character, and I felt cheated by it. It doesn’t make any sense to keep the reader in suspense, when the MC already knows what’s going on, e.g. the whereabouts of her dad, which was teased throughout the story. Why on earth is Penny-who-is-actually-Hazel wondering what happened to the dad when she already knows? Why is she so desperate to call Penny’s best friend, who she has no relationship with? And the whole scenario with her deciding she doesn’t want to kill boys and her falling in love with Bo was either the most convenient timing ever, or a plot hole. I should go back and read this book again to see if I’m mistaken, and spot the clues, but I really can’t be bothered. I think there was some feeble explanation about Hazel inhabiting Penny in years past, but it wasn’t enough for me to go, ‘ohhh, I get it.’
While I didn’t think the twist was pulled off well, and I believe that some changes could have improved the story, I don’t think this book deserves the side-eye it’s getting from bloggers. Yet, it didn’t blow me away either. I’m giving The Wicked Deep 3 stars.