Lydia Millet is an award-winning writer best known for her works for adults; her most recent accomplishment, a collection of short stories called Love in Infant Monkeys, was one of three finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. And so her newest novel, a middle-grade fantasy called The Fires Beneath the Sea, seems like a big departure for her. In Fires, Cara and her brothers are trying to cope with the sudden disappearance of their mother, only to realize that their mother’s been drawn into something far more serious than family problems – and now they’re sunk in it, too.
Expertly researched and timely
Kirkus Reviews calls the novel an “eco-fantasy,” and I can’t think of a better word than that to describe it. Although the mystery only just begins to unfold in this first book of the series, it’s still clear from the start that Cara’s mother is deeply connected to the ocean and that something serious and dreadful is going on beneath the waters. Every clue leading Cara and her brothers Max and Jackson onwards is somehow tied to the ocean’s creatures and ecology, and lovable, genius Jackson – Jax, for short – manages to insert some humor and information with his nearly robotic recitation of scientific research on the environment. Millet graduated with a Master’s in Environmental Policy, and it shows in the best way.
The novel’s setting, Cape Cod, is also fantastically realized. After finishing the book, I felt like I lived there my whole life. Biking, swimming and boating – Cara’s family is believably outdoorsy and yet also totally modern, too.
Also really creepy
By far, the best part of The Fires Beneath the Sea is the Pouring Man. He could turn into a classic villain of children’s literature. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let me just say that he is one of the creepiest, scariest characters I’ve encountered in middle-grade fantasy. He really gets you looking over your shoulder for the next few days after finishing the book. I found the siblings’ final conflict with the Pouring Man to be somewhat anticlimactic and even cliché, but this being a middle-grade fantasy for readers still new to the genre, I expect the intended audience won’t feel the same way as me.
But something’s missing
Some young adult and middle-grade books extend far past their audience and become adult favorites, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that to be the case with The Fires Beneath the Sea. It’s certainly a good book, but it lacks the humor, sparkle and depth of characterization that make the truly great young adult fantasies capture the imagination of everyone, despite their age. The characters’ depth, of course, will likely increase as the series continues, but the humor and spark may never show up. This was a surprise to me, actually, because I adored the dark humor in Millet’s adult books.
Why should you read this book?
If you are a fan of middle-grade fantasies, or if you know a middle-grader looking for a new series, then give this book a try. For it’s intended middle-grade audience, Fires is a solid environmentalist fantasy. If, however, you’re looking for another Diana Wynne Jones, J. K. Rowling, Garth Nix, Suzanne Collins, or any other author whose books snap up grown-up readers as much as young readers, then The Fires Beneath the Sea likely isn’t for you. It’s a solid middle-grade fantasy, yes, but there’s not too much here that will surprise people very familiar with the fantasy genre.
If you’re instead looking for a good read for grown-ups, I’ll go ahead and suggest Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Only marginally fantasy, sure, but it’s still fantastic.