Race to the Bottom of the Sea, by Lindsay Eagar

I am not drawn to pirate books.  So I almost said no when offered a review copy of Race to the Bottom of the Sea, by Lindsay Eagar (Candlewick, middle grade, October 2017), which as you can see from the cover illustration has pirates.  But I could not resist a book about a girl who is a brilliant young marine biologist with steampunkish overtones (I like girl scientist books and a touch of the mechanical).  And so I said "yes please" and the book arrived, and I read it with  enjoyment, though not without some doubts (about which more below).

11 year old Fidelia Quail has grown up assisting her marine biologist parents in their endeavors, devising ingenious devices including a small submarine.  When her parents leave her on the deck of their boat to keep an eye on the weather while they use the sub to go below, Fidelia lets the appearance of a shark (a species she's never seen before!) push the safety envelope; the fierce weather of the Undertow arrives faster than she thought it would, and her parents never resurface.

Life on dry land with her librarian aunt doesn't inspire Fidelia, but wracked by guilt and grief, she copes with the dull days as best she can.  But then she is kidnapped by pirates!

There's actually a good reason why the pirates have come to kidnap her--one of Fidelia's prototypes (not yet actually functional) is a way to breath underwater.  And the leader of the gang of pirates needs this device to recover a lost treasure that sank long ago....So Fidelia goes to sea again, on a once grand pirate ship that's now practically a wreck, with a tiny crew and a notoriously wicked, and utterly obsessed, pirate captain--Merrick the Monstrous-- driving them on.

It is a good distraction for her, helping her work through her depression, and Eagar does a nice job making the voyage, in which not much Adventure actually happens, interesting.  The dynamics of the pirate crew (all two of them), the Captain, and Fidelia are interesting,  Fidelia's marine biological thoughts and her work on her water-breathing system likewise.  There are lots of touches of humor,  and for those who really do like things to Happen, there are flashbacks to several years back that provide the (more adventurous) context for the current situation.

But though I enjoyed reading it, and the pages turned briskly, there were two things that bothered me, one big and one small.

First, the reader, and Fidelia, fall prey to something that felt like Stockholm Syndrome.  Merrick is really quite monstrous, and has done terrible things (including kidnapping and threatening Fidelia) but he is limned in such a way that he becomes more and more a romantic figure with whom Fidelia and the reader must sympathize than the manipulative killer he actually is. This needs to happen for the story's emotional arc to be satisfying, but it felt distasteful to me.  Likewise, the way he controlled the physical circumstances of the woman at the heart of Merrick's romantic past story was not something that made him anyone I'd want to be involved with, and so I resented ultimately feeling sorry for him.

Second, the crew of two plus a captain is not sufficient to sail such a large sailing ship and it is tricky if not impossible to sail around inside a cave (because most caves aren't windy).  This ship behaves more like it's motorized.

Do, however, read this if you love smart sciencey girls inventing things that both save the day and add to the world's knowledge of marine biology!  Here's the Kirkus review, that notes the same positive things I do.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


  1. This sounds pretty good in spite of your caveats. I'll try to check it out. Thanks for the review.

  2. I recently ordered this for a niece who says she wants to be a marine biologist - did not have a chance to read it yet myself but I thought it sounded great! Your caveats sound valid but I also read Arthur Ransome with incredulity that those children could said a boat effectively all by themselves - that was equally out of my ken.


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