The Deep by Alma Katsu

#reviews #books

I’m kicking off the new year with a new category on the blog: reviews. There will be books, movies, video games, and maybe even tools. As with everything on this website that practically no one visits, I’m doing this mostly for my own benefit. I’ve found in the past that writing down my thoughts after finishing a book or video game helps me remember it better and appreciate it more. As an aspiring writer, it also helps me analyze and understand why a book works when it does, so that I may learn something from the author’s technique.

I won’t be assigning a numerical value to my reviews. Reviews are too subjective, and the reading experience too complex to boil down to a single number. If you really want to know how I feel about a book, you’ll have to read the whole thing.

I also won’t be pulling any punches when it comes to spoilers, for two reasons: First, because I’ve found that I prefer to read in-depth reviews after I’ve already finished the book myself, so I’m going to make a leap of faith here and assume you do the same. Second, because whenever reviews try to stay clear of specifics, they often end up sounding vague and uninteresting. I find it much more interesting to treat reviews like a book club discussion rather than a pre-purchase decision helper. That being said, let’s get on with it.

There exists an interesting niche of books that sit at the crossroads of horror and historical fiction. Some of my favorite representatives of this original blend of genres are Dan Simmons’s The Terror and Alma Katsu’s own The Hunger, and while The Deep is more of a supernatural thriller than a true horror, it scratches the same itch as its earlier cousins.

One has to admire Katsu’s daring audacity to write a genre novel that takes place in such a famous setting, and to do it without shying away from inserting real people as characters in the story. The risk that her story might come off as insulting to the memory of the victims of a horrendous tragedy must have always been at the back of her mind, but she sidesteps the issue by the clever use of two techniques: meticulous research, and being a damn good writer.

Most of all, it works because her characters are believable. The majority of them are first-class passengers on the luxury liner, and while they’re obviously wealthy individuals and some them come off as snobbish, Katsu doesn’t sink to instill in them the casual malice and indifference to human suffering that is the staple of lesser works. And even in those cases when they do truly awful things–like when the Lady Duff-Gordon bribes her husband’s way onto one of the lifeboats and has it launched before it’s reached its full capacity–Katsu places the reader in the mind of the characters in a way that make their actions at least partially understandable, and what an accomplishment that is.

The same goes for every other character. They are all human in their own way, and Katsu does an admirable job of making the reader understand and sympathize with the conflicting motivations of characters that are often at odds with each other, like Dai and Les, or Mark and Caroline. Tasty, delicious human paradox, made that much sweeter by Katsu’s command of the language; on more than one occasion I had to stop reading to savor a particular sentence or turn of phrase. If only I could write like that.

Romance and passion play a surprisingly large part in the story, but always with a sinister undercurrent of obsession and madness. I’m tempted to say it feels a bit much at times that no two characters can have a fully healthy relationship, but in the end it all serves to underscore the feeling that something is terribly wrong on the doomed ship, and it’s always tantalizingly unclear whether the wrongness is due to an external force, or if the characters themselves are causing it.

This ambiguity permeates everything that happens on the ship, and as the story progresses the effect gets more and more pronounced. Katsu delays the reveal up until the very end, and by then the story makes the reader feel like they’re sharing in the fever dream of everyone aboard, and that sense has long fallen overboard and been consumed by the unfathomable depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

If there is one criticism I would level at the story, is that it could have leaned more into the horror. Lilian’s ghost was, I felt, underused. In this respect I think I’ve enjoyed The Hunger more, but otherwise I’d be hard pressed to have to choose between the two. They’re both excellent books that you should go read right now.

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