Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Wild Blue Under," Judi Fennell

Alternate Title: Chasing Tail

The Chick: Valerie Dumere. After years of rootless wandering, she's finally settled down to help run her dead mother's store - too bad it's about to go bankrupt. Could a mysteriously hot dude who claims she's earned an inheritance from her deadbeat dad be her salvation?
The Rub: Yeah, she's earned an inheritance - she just has to follow this hot dude to the ocean to get it. Don't mind his talking seagull sidekick. Just ignore the evil albatross trying to divebomb your car. Forget the fact your dead mom said you're allergic to the ocean.
Dream Casting: Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The Dude: Rod Tritone. As son of the High Councilman of Atlantis, he's basically Prince of the Sea, and he doesn't like the idea of having to go all the way to freakin' Kansas to retrieve a long-lost sea princess who's only half-human. With great power comes great responsibility, though, right?
The Rub: Valerie's totally got it goin' on, but Rod can't dilute his precious princely bloodline with the dirty mudblood of a hybrid.
Dream Casting: Matt Bomer.

The Plot:
Valerie: Look at this store, isn't it neat?
Wouldn't you think my story's complete?
Wouldn't you think I'm the girl - the girl who's got everything?

Rod: I've got issues and complexes aplenty.
I've got guilt trips and plot holes galore.

Valerie: You want daddy issues? I've got twenty!
But who cares, no big deal - I want moooooooore.....

Rod: *ahem, next song* An albatross is trying to kill us,
'cause humans, dey killed his wife.
He's been hired by a heinous villain,
and has been paid to end your life.

But hey if you come with me, girl,
Just ignore my talking bird,
I'll give you a big fat diamond,
And pretend this plot isn't absurd.

Valerie: This dude's CRAY-ZEE.
This dude's CRAY-ZEE.
But, god, his six-pack's,
Tasty as a Big Mac,
Take it from me!

I'm risking danger? Think I'll pass,
But hot holy DAMN look at his ASS.
Fine I'll go with you, ignore all my red flags,
But you're CRAY-ZEE.

Rod: *cough KEY CHANGE* There, you see her, checking out your sexy thighs,
Wow she's got such pretty eyes, I really want to bang her.
Though I fucked my brother's life, so I can't take a wife,
I wanna, BANG DE GIRL.

Valerie: Wow, I want him, even though he's really nuts.
I have seen a lot of butts, and by far his is the nicest.
Though my dad ran away, so all men must be that way,
I wanna BANG DE BOY.

Livingston, the Talking Seagull: SHALALALALALA, you're both dumb,
Your "issues" aren't worth chum,
SHALALALALALA this is contrived,
How are you both still alive,
Enough to BANG DE GIRL?

SHALALALALA, this book is hell,
The girl's TSTL,
She's not smart enough to do much else,
Our hero's dumb as well.
Might as well BANG DE GIRL!

Rod and Valerie: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Secret Princess with Daddy Issues

1 Secret Sea Prince With Brother Issues

2 Huge-Ass Diamonds

Several Talking Birds

1 Evil Albatross

Several Interfering Deities

1 Remarkably Incompetent Villain

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Fake Allergy

1 Letter From an Inconveniently Dead Parent That Conveniently Explains Entire Backstory All At Once

The Word:
When I picked this book up at the Sourcebooks signing at RWA National, I was pretty interested. A merman romance? Intriguing! I felt some pretty heavy anticipation in regards to the worldbuilding. I haven't read very many books that have an underwater setting so I was curious as to how it could be accomplished in a romance. Also, I had a bit of an unhealthy curiosity about how merpeople actually DO IT - sparked, in part, by a hilarious spoof on Saturday Night Live where Reese Witherspoon, playing a mermaid, tries to seduce Will Ferrell while talking about laying eggs and having him fertilize them.

BACK ON TOPIC - the merman romance. Yay or nay?

NAY. SO MUCH NAY. There aren't enough perturbed horses in the world to convey just how much NAY there was to this story. The characters are contrived, the villain is breathtakingly incompetent, the threats are silly and the worldbuilding is cartoonish. And the PUNS. Horrible water-themed PUNS were everywhere.

Our merman hero is Rod Tritone, brother to Reel, the hero of Fennell's debut novel, In Over Her Head. Yes. Merman brothers named Rod and Reel. It's silly all by itself without considering the contextual implications of naming mermen after things that are supposedly dangerous to them - isn't that akin to naming human kids Gun and Knife? Anyhoo - he's a prince, or rather, the son of the High Councilman of the sea (who's named Fisher. I shit you not. Can someone tell me how that is NOT like calling a human Murderer? Or Killer? REALLY?).

Rod's been given a strange mission by the Council - it turns out Lance Dumere, one of the recently deceased Councilmen, begat an heir with a human woman, and the Council believes this hybrid girl is the key to some vaguely described prophecy and that bringing her back to her heritage could possibly save the world. The book's hazy on the exact details, but suffice it to say - Rod's got a job: find the girl, bring her back to the ocean, and dump salt water on her so she turns into a mermaid. He also has to do all of this in three days, or the tail he's sacrificing to pass for human won't grow back.

Rod flies out to Kansas, of all places, to find the woman (Valerie) who's currently running a shop that sells ocean-themed souvenirs. He informs her of her father's death and says he left her a legacy. Valerie refuses point-blank - even though she's never met her father, knowing that he abandoned them has left her very bitter and she wants nothing to do with him.

That is, until a Plot Device Accountant shows up to conveeeeeniently inform her that her deceased mother (who owned the shop) forgot to pay some taxes and the IRS is gunning for her, at which point Valerie jumps on the idea of a legacy. How ... coincidental.

By this point, Valerie and Rod have some tedious, cutesy and contrived interaction, most of which involves Valerie falling down a lot and admiring Rod's bod. Yes, Rod is apparently so attractive that Valerie just falls down at random times while looking at him. I'm not exaggerating - it's a good thing she spends most the rest of this book sitting in a car because in these first chapters she makes Bella Swan from Twilight look like a figure skater.

A monkeywrench is thrown into Rod's plans when a talking seagull superspy (I'm serious) crashes his party. This seagull, seemingly named Livingston for the sole reason of providing Rod with an "I presume?" joke, tells Rod that explosives were found in a trench he'd recently been excavating, leading the Council to think someone's out to kill Rod to mess with the line of succession. It turns out the main reason Rod was even sent on this mission was to get him out of harm's way - but all for naught. Livingston informs Rod and a freaked-out Valerie that "JR," an infamous albatross mercenary/assassin (again, not making this up), has been hired to take both Rod and Valerie out.

This starts off what turns out to be a road romance as Valerie, Rod and Livingston hop in Valerie's car and try to race to the ocean before JR - who's gained control of all the birds in the area. This leads to some painfully silly action sequences where birds drop dead fish on the car and fly around with blankets to block the windows and peregrine falcons launch other, smaller birds at the windows and somehow Valerie, Rod and Livingston scream about how OMG! Our fast-moving metal box designed to weather heavy impact is no match for dead fish and blankets and very determined small birds!

Meanwhile, uh, back in the ocean, Rod's family are kicking themselves for not actually telling Rod about the threat on his life before sending him three thousand miles inland without any backup. They also make some half-assed attempts to find out who is responsible for the threat, but it's all for show - the villain, Rod's cousin Drake, is so obviously, idiodically evil that it's practically tattooed on his forehead and the fact that his nefarious plans remain undiscovered for so long suggests bad things about the combined IQs of the Atlantean Royal Family.

But really, none of Judi Fennell's characters are much sharper than a bowling ball. Valerie is one of those people who probably has trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time. She nearly runs her car off the road more than once because she's so entranced by Rod's unbelievable sexiness that she fails to remember she's driving a vehicle at high speed to escape from murderous attackers.

Much of the novel is from her POV and 85% of her mental output is Ass! Look at that ass! And those abs! And his chest! Pectorals! Glutes! Manly Thighs! Rock hard --- shit! Birds are attacking! It's really hard to get to know her character - especially what she sees in Rod other than his physical appearance since the very sight of him sends her into Bimbo Mode. If she's like this all the time I wonder if she's capable of driving a car with an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue in the passenger seat.

Also - she tells Rod she doesn't want to go to the ocean with him because she's deathly allergic to it. Why does she think this? Because of a poorly-remembered event in her childhood and because her mother told her so. Has she ever been tested? Does she carry any medication? Has she ever been to an allergy doctor? You can't just believe you're allergic to the entire fucking ocean (75% of the earth's surface) based on hearsay without checking it out with a doctor! She's supposed to be twenty-nine years old! When my throat starting itching when I ate bowls of mixed nuts as a teenager, I said, "Huh, guess I won't eat nuts anymore" - only for my mum to say, "Don't be a moron. Get yourself tested to make sure what you're allergic to!"

Of course, Valerie also has Daddy issues stemming from her belief that her father abandoned her. She's spent years living a vagrant lifestyle which she blames on her father - she thinks he passed on a "deadbeat" gene and that's why she's never been satisfied sticking in one place. She's determined to keep her mother's store afloat because she thinks doing otherwise is to abandon her mother's memory the same way her Dad did.

Rod, on the other hand, is one of those rigid stick-to-the-rules types thanks to one mistake he made in his past. In one of the few interesting aspects of this book, Rod actually blames himself for his brother Reel falling in love with a human (the events of In Over Her Head). Apparently, Reel had a shot at the Immortality that's bestowed on certain members of the royal family and turned it down to live as a human with with his lady love Erica. Rod, who accidentally introduced them, doesn't really consider the whole "true love" part - thinks he's condemned Reel to a shortened lifespan separated from the ocean. Yes, it's pretty selfish reasoning on Rod's part but at least it's something.

Still, despite the "issues" which are supposed to make our protagonists so darn "deep," they remain superficial and mostly inconsistent characters. When Rod jumps in the sea 3/4 of the way through the book and his tail doesn't grow back, he takes it as a sign he should flip the almighty gods the almighty bird, and run off to Kansas with Valerie - completely forgetting the whole "Valerie needs to be returned to the sea to save the world" aspect of his mission. Sure, I guess rules and regulations aren't the most important thing in the world but saving the fucking world sure is! Also, did I mention that our protagonists' deep inner turmoils are neatly and instantaneously solved within pages of each other?

As for Drake, the villain, the whole joke is that he's managed to convince everyone he's so stupid he couldn't possibly be behind any nefarious plot, when really he's quite functionally stupid enough to do all sorts of badness. He's the kind of villain who's so exaggeratedly bad he accidentally chokes minions into unconsciousness and unwittingly kills henchmen.

And that world-building I was so excited about? What world building? The world of Atlantis reads like Judi Fennell's "research" consisted of watching Disney's The Little Mermaid even more times than I have - which I suppose is an achievement in and of itself. I'm talking about a world fuelled by fish puns and cliches. Imagine an American sitcom circa 1985, only with all the human colloquialisms replaced with their aquatic equivalents. "Everyone was on fins and needlefish," "that's the fifty-thousand clam question," "Son of a Mer!" Also, the mermaids all wear coconut-shell bras tied with seaweed. Did I mention all the joyful sea creatures that just drift in an out, dropping chirpy "hello"s and wisecracks? Thank heavens they don't burst into song!

Oh, and after reading this book I think I owe Bertrice Small an apology. "Love lance" may be a silly name for penis, but at least it's a recognizable metaphor. "Love lance" has nothing on "shell-fillers" - the Mer term for breasts. Several times Rod catches himself admiring Valerie's "shell-fillers." I can only hope that shell-fillers isn't the actual term but more like the Atlantean equivalent of "sweater puppies." Seagulls, hilariously, use an existing but incorrect sexual euphemism - they admire Valerie's "hoo-has." Sorry, birdbrains, think further south. I realize breasts are kind of an oddity under the sea where mammals are few are far between but sheesh.

As for the plotting, it's haphazard at best, and downright contrived and sloppy at worst. Several plot threads are left dangling and plot holes left gaping under the laziest bullshit excuse of all, "The gods said so." Yes, Atlantis is a world still under the rule of the Greek gods of mythology, whose entire purpose is to serve as deus ex machina. The villain's plot is foiled by Zeus - why? Hell if I know! When asked this, Zeus just lifts an eyebrow and gives a cryptic riddle response which is I guess is supposed to make the reader want to get the next book (Catch of a Lifetime). When Rod first jumps in the water, his tail doesn't grow back right away - but it does once Valerie's in danger. Why? The gods refuse to say - although they assure Rod it won't happen again. It turns out Valerie's not the vague MacGuffin needed to fulfill the prophesy - so why did the gods tell the Council to tell Rod to get her in the first place? STOP QUESTIONING THE ALMIGHTY DEITIES!

When you get right down to it, the novel doesn't have a point at all. Wild Blue Under is just an awful piece of writing. The characters are inconsistent and stupid, the villain cliched, the world-building unoriginal and unfunny, the tone flips from cartoonish to dead serious without enough transition, the characters' deeply ingrained personal problems are solved too easily and neatly, and the plot remains incomplete thanks to convenient deus ex machina excuses.

I picked this book up at RWA Nationals thinking it was a fresh new tail - but what I got instead was a three-week-old stinker. If you snag yourself a copy, do yourself a favour - throw it back.


  1. OH. My God. Not only does this sound bad, it sounds like it's doing the badness limbo. And it won.

  2. Thanks for the review. I had the first book in this series on my wish list, but took it off after following your reading progress on twitter.

    I'd assumed from descriptions of the book that it was a spoof. But this is too much for me.

  3. This was an entertaining review. I believe the murderous albatross and the secret spy seagull are indeed pushing the boundaries of disbelief. My favorite part is the stanza that begins with: "Livingston, the Talking Seagull: SHALALALALALA, you're both dumb" :)

    When you talked about shell-fillers on twitter I thought, I COULD live with that, not SO bad, but yeah.. the rest of it makes it a bit too silly for my tastes.

  4. I am 50 pages into this book and I am done with it. Can we say Finding Nemo with the talking seagull?

    As always, your reviews bring a smile to my face :D

  5. Bibliovore --> It won SO HARD. Although not quite so hard to get an F - as dumb as some of the characters were, I could see human beings actually acting that way if under the influence of a powerful narcotic.

    MaryK --> You know, I think that's the book's weakness. If it had gone full-out spoof I might have tolerated it, but it can't seem to decide whether to be goofy or realistic.

    Janicu --> I could tolerate a murderous albatross, except for the fact that his story is cut short for no reason. "Hey! I'm going to stop my evil plan because Zeus said so!" Yay for no development!

    Katiebabs --> Naah, "Finding Nemo" was much more intellectual and emotionally moving than this book - even when all the seagulls could say was, "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

  6. I don't read romance novels (not yet at least!) but I always enjoy reading your reviews. I LOVED this reviews's "the plot", it was the most hysterical thing I've read in weeks.
    My favorite stanzas are the "kiss the girl" stanzas. ^^

  7. I think this is my most favorite review of yours yet - aside from Games of Command. Nothing will ever top your cute little star wars sounds. ;)

    I tried to read the first book in this series. The first chapter was gut-pukingly atrocious. The fishy colloquialism that had me throwing it back?? "Bullshit shark" instead of plain 'ole bullshit. Classic, right? That I would throw in the towel over a dumbly reissued term like bullshit.

    Your Little Mermaid song was freaking brilliant.

  8. Ah, well, not for everyone I guess. Clever post.