Review: Undercurrent by Paul Blackwell

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Title: Undercurrent
Author: Paul Blackwell
Genre: young adult, contemporary, thriller, science fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Published: expected July 23 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3/5

In Undercurrent, Paul Blackwell’s fast-paced YA thriller, sixteen-year-old Callum Harris survives a plummet over a waterfall, but wakes to find himself in a life that’s totally different from the one he knew.

His parents were separated. Now they’re together. His brother Cole was a sports star. Now he’s paralyzed. And Callum, who used to be quiet and sort of unpopular, is suddenly a jock with two hot girls after him.

But there’s one difference that matters more than all the others combined: His former best friend wants Callum dead. And he isn’t the only one.

Tense and original, Undercurrent is a psychological thrill-ride with sci-fi elements that will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman and Neal Shusterman.

Undercurrent is a weird, unsettling, slightly creepy read. It's reminiscent of a few movies (The Butterfly Effect, Source Code)  and other books (Parallel, Pivot Point) but still manages to be quite engaging and fresh. There are some weaker aspects that kept this from being a higher-rated read, but on the whole, this debut is encouraging. Undercurrent is a rather fast read, and due to that fact and its short length do make me wonder how long this particular story will stick out in memory.

The author struggles with character development the most. Callum experiences a different reality than the one he is used to, but he doesn't really grow or change over the course of the events depicted. The trope used to to show who he could be/is in another reality feels half-cooked and fails to create any real tension within the plot.  The protagonist's struggle to get back to his own universe is interesting, but lacks and real depth because the character of Cal/Callum himself is so shallow and one-dimensional. 

Cal's problem isn't unique. Despite the important roles they all play, his mom, father, best friend, quasi-girlfriend and enemies all suffer from the same issues. They're all flat and more cardboard than real characters with agendas, plans, and feelings. The relationships at the heart of the novel are too simple, or too stereotypical to carry much weight. The antagonist is one of the worst cases. I won't spoil but all I can say is that I was surprised and disappointed with how... predictable.. that reveal turned out to be. With a lack of engaging protagonist, I had hoped for much more from the villains.

That all sounds harsh, but while I obviously had issues with some of this novel, I can easily admit that there are a few things working in Undercurrent's favor: the writing is simple but detailed, and the author uses the slight science fiction elements to his favor. It's easy to get sunk in Cal's story because the author has a talent for creating an engaging plot. It's easy to keep reading because this thriller has a small but significant influx of science fiction to create an unlikely but entertaining twist.

Proposed as the first of a series/duology, I can only hope the publishers pick up on the second book. There is enough  conclusion to satisfy readers, but there is plenty more the author could do to explore the premise set up in Undercurrent. It's not a perfect book, but it's good enough to warrant further reading.

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