The Dark Water by Seth Fishman
The Dark Water is the sequel to last year’s The Well’s End, a fast-paced and suspenseful YA SF thriller that I enjoyed despite its reliance on several well-worn teen themes. To discuss The Dark Water, I’ll have to spoil a little of the plot of The Well’s End, so if you’re planning to read that novel, you may want to stop after the next paragraph.
The Well’s End was written in first person from the perspective of Mia Kish, a nationally-ranked swimmer who attends an elite boarding school. When Mia was a toddler, she fell down a well and was eventually rescued as the world watched on CNN. (This story was inspired by Baby Jessica who fell down a well in author Seth Fishman’s hometown.) Mia is used to reporters asking personal questions, but when a reporter named Blake Sutton shows up at Mia’s house and school, Mia’s dad, a scientist, gets upset.
The next day, a virus attacks the school. Teachers and students are suddenly aging and all the teachers, including Mia’s best friend’s father, die. Guards are surrounding the school and not letting anybody out. Mia and a few of her friends, including the mysterious new boy, escape and eventually get to the cave where her father works. Up to this point, Mia thought that her father was a software engineer, but when she enters the cave, she discovers that he has been lying to her for all these years. He and a few colleagues are doing biological research on the healing properties of a well of water that shows up in the cave every 17 years. Blake Sutton, who used to be in the group, reverse-engineered the water to create the devastating virus. He is back to stake his claim to the water that will be appearing in the cave at any moment. When we last see Mia, at the cliffhanger ending of The Well’s End, she thinks she has figured out the secret of the well and, despite her phobia of wells, jumps in…
What I liked about The Well’s End was its suspense, the fast pace, and the science fiction — the creation of a virus, the biological research going on in the cave, the study of the water’s properties. However, once Mia jumps into the well, the story takes a turn away from science fiction and becomes a lost world fantasy, for what Mia finds under the water (and this is not a spoiler since it’s mentioned in the publisher’s blurb) is an underground world where strange-looking people called “Keepers” guard the “source” of the water. Mia and her father and a couple of her friends (who have also jumped in) discover that a civil war is brewing amongst the Keepers, and their appearance acts as a catalyst. There is a little bit of political intrigue, lots of chaotic chases, many life-threatening injuries that they heal with the water (this gets tiring), a couple of tragic deaths, and eventually Mia’s attempt to discover the secret of the “source.” Meanwhile, back “up top” a battle also rages on as Mia’s friends Jimmy and Odessa try to escape the cave with enough water to heal the townies and the students at their school. We get these scenes from Jimmy’s perspective.
Mia and a couple of her friends are likable teens and many readers will be eager to discover their fates in The Dark Water. I appreciated that there was a lot less teen drama in this story. Some of the scenes involving Mia’s childhood memories of being in the well (which turn out to relate to her relationship with the “source”) are touching, as are her relationships with her father and her best friend. However, the romance, which was based on insta-love, falls totally flat. The underground world, which was mostly described in terms of its architecture and décor, did not have much impact on me. I think I just didn’t believe in it and at every moment in the underground world, I felt that I was reading a fantastical story rather than actually being there. Its scale, inhabitants, and landscape were unconvincing. I think this was the most disappointing aspect of The Dark Water. That, and the aforementioned switch from SF thriller to a sort of touchy-feely magical fantasy.
I do not know if this is the end of Mia’s story. Seth Fishman leaves it with enough closure to satisfy, but it’s also open if he chooses to write a third book. After spending 10 minutes or so at his website, I couldn’t tell either way. The Dark Water, at 288 pages, was significantly shorter than The Well’s End at 352 pages. I think it would have been better to combine the two stories into one book instead. (It wouldn’t have to be 640 pages long because The Dark Water contains some re-cap of events from The Well’s End.)
I listened to the audio version produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Katie Schorr. It’s 7.5 hours long. Katie Schorr’s voice is perfect for this story.
Fair warning: spoilers for the previous book, The Well’s End, follow.
The Dark Water is the sequel to Seth Fishman’s The Well’s End and while the first book was a solidly entertaining and exciting book despite issues of weak characterization and a somewhat flat style, the sequel lacks its predecessor’s deftness in pace while it continues to have much of the same issues, making it a weaker novel overall.
At the close of The Well’s End (did I mention there will be spoilers? Seriously, stop now if you haven’t read the first book because I’m going to tell you its ending. No, really. I am), Mia and her friends dove into the miracle-water well to escape Sutton and find Mia’s father. They surface in an underground world, complete with a beautiful city filled with 7-foot-tall “Keepers” who see their role as guardians of “The Source.” Unfortunately, the “topsiders” as Mia and those who dwell on the surface are called, have arrived at a bad time. One of the Three, a trio that leads the city, has been brutally killed (such death is nearly unheard of in this world) and the Keepers see the timing of the murder suspiciously coincidental with the arrival of topsiders. The death of one of the Three has also thrown off the balance of leadership, and the city is on the verge of civil war as the two remaining of the Three are at odds as to what to do about the map discovered by Mia’s father years ago. One faction wishes to go topside, one wants to lock the place down. The debate has been ongoing, but the murder followed by the arrival first of Mia’s father and then Mia’s group is the spark that sets off a violent explosion. While the Keepers war with each other and against the Topsiders, Mia’s group desperately seeks her father and the Source, for above them the deadly virus of book one continues to rage and without more water, everyone they know will most likely die, along with the rest of the world if the virus isn’t checked.
As I mentioned, the weak characterization of The Well’s End continues through The Dark Water, even though we’ve already gotten to know these characters. Nobody really develops much, and it’d be pretty easy to describe each of them pretty fully in only two or three words. The new characters — the Keepers — are just as weakly drawn, though one of the Three gains at least a small measure of individuality at the very end. Unfortunately, the main Keeper character, a daughter of one of the Three, is a relatively shallow character and falls immediately right into the “spunky rebellious daughter of a high ranking father” mode. Worse, she becomes part of yet another insta-love, which just makes me want to shut my eyes to it all and pretend that subplot doesn’t even exist in the book.
The fast pace, good balance, and exciting action managed to overcome the poor characters in book one, but these aspects are not handled as well in The Dark Water. Pacing in particular is an issue, as the characters do a lot of waiting around at various points. The action scenes, meanwhile, are more of a jumble, somewhat repetitive, and not particularly sharply conveyed, making it hard at times to visualize. The fact that nearly all wounds can be immediately healed with the water makes the fighting even more abstract, which is too bad, because the potential was there for some highly original fight scenes.
Structurally, the book is more complicated, in that Fishman splits (not quite evenly) the narrative between Mia’s story down below and a surface-level story involving Jimmy and Odessa, who were left behind in The Cave to deal with Sutton. This plotline moves along at a much better clip, and in many ways I found these two characters and their relationship to one another more interesting and more realistic. The resolution to both plotlines is a bit anti-climactic, though not without some emotional heft.
In the end, The Dark Water is a weaker book than its predecessor, but since The Well’s End closed on a cliffhanger, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who enjoyed that book will stop there. Those who did enjoy it won’t have a hard time reading to the end of the sequel to find out what happens to everyone, though they might be a tad disappointed, as well as somewhat surprised by the switchover from an action-filled suspense thriller to a slower-moving, more mystical Lost World fantasy.
The Well’s End — (2014-2015) Young Adult. Publisher: Sixteen-year-old Mia Kish’s small town of Fenton, Colorado is known for three things: being home to the world’s tallest sycamore tree, the national chicken-thigh-eating contest and one of the ritziest boarding schools in the country, Westbrook Academy. But when emergency sirens start blaring and Westbrook is put on lockdown, quarantined and surrounded by soldiers who shoot first and ask questions later, Mia realizes she’s only just beginning to discover what makes Fenton special. And the answer is behind the wall of the Cave, aka Fenton Electronics, of which her father is the Director. Mia’s dad has always been secretive about his work, allowing only that he’s working for the government. But unless Mia’s willing to let the whole town succumb to a strange illness that ages people years in a matter of hours, the end result death, she’s got to break quarantine, escape the school grounds and outsmart armed soldiers to uncover the truth.