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Book Review: Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly

Deep BlueTitle: Deep Blue

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: Disney
Publication Date: May 6 2014
Hardcover: 320 Pages

The first in a series of four epic tales set in the depths of the ocean, where six mermaids seek to protect and save their hidden world.

Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe.

When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.

Stand alone or series: First in the Waterfire Saga

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Hardcover

Why did I read this book: I fell in love with how beautiful this book is – the cover, the illustrations. I was also curious because Jennifer Donnelly is an author who comes highly recommended and there was a lot of hyper surrounding the book.


The production values of Deep Blue are astonishing. From a purely tactile perspective, this book is stunning: a lovely cover, blue lettering and gorgeous illustrations fitting the under-the-sea theme peppered throughout. The book is the first in a four-book series launched with much fanfare by Disney as a multi-platform “saga”, including an enhanced ebook and an original song. According to this PW article, the book will have a staggering “250,000-copy first printing, and the $500,000 marketing campaign for the novel includes a national author tour kicking off May 6; print, TV, and in-theater consumer advertising; promotion through ABC Family and Hollywood Records; and a retail floor display with riser.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the next step was a TV show or an upcoming Disney movie. Its author is a successful, respected writer who has penned well-reviewed YA and adult novels.

The premise is pretty cool too: Serafina is a 16-year-old mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, the princess of Miromara, the oldest civilisation of the merfolk. She is bound by duty to her kingdom and by the love for her people even as she feels the burden of her position. On the day of her Dokimi ceremony – a traditional, gruesome rite that will determine whether she is worthy of the crown – which will precede her engagement to dashing Prince Mahdi, everything changes. The kingdom is attacked, her mother is mortally wounded and Serafina has to run away if she is to stay alive.

The attacks are directly connected to Serafina’s haunting dreams. She dreams of sea witches who foretell the imminent return of an ancient evil and who call to Serafina and five other mermaid heroines – each from a different sea kingdom – to unite and fight to save their world. They just need to find each other first then go on a quest to get the six talismans spread across the oceans of the world.

Starting with the good: I dig the idea behind the book. Even if the tropes are familiar (a Quest! To Find Talismans! And Save the World!), I like the fact that it’s six mermaids, from different parts of the world (India, China, Brazil, etc – bonus points for diversity). I am always up for stories about girls going on adventures, becoming friends, developing a sisterhood and saving the world. The idea here is also to examine the burden of power and tradition, the question of identity and ecological issues affecting the oceans of the world. I even liked the cheesiness of the many (many!) language puns (“currensea”, “merlfriend”).

The problem really is that the execution leaves a lot to be desired. My problems with it are manifold: from tone to voice, from character development (or lack of) to the writing. And the info-dumping. Oh my goodness, the info-dumping. The first 25% of the book as well as it last few chapters are all exposition. Obviously the author put a lot of thought into creating this world from its historical background (all the way back to Atlantis) and magic system to the many (many!) details of the world. This includes everything: clothes, hairstyles, social customs, and furniture. It’s all very clunky. Worst of all, some of it is even ridiculous. Bearing in mind this is all set under water, I couldn’t help but to laugh at the descriptions of hairstyles, dresses and tea drinking. This last one drove me to distraction: how exactly do you pour and drink hot tea from a teacup, under the sea?

Info-dump and silliness can be forgiven if the writing is right, if the voice is engaging, if the characters are well-developed. But no such luck. The camp nature of the language and the silliness of these world-building details clash heavily with the nature of the story. There is a darkness inherent to the story – death, torture and destitution for example – that is never truly matched by the light tone of the narrative.

This is amplified by the simplistic writing and between that and the heavy info-duping, I can’t help but to think that the book has been written down. The teenagers in the book sound much younger and there is a lot of hand-holding, artless dialogue and internal monologue. This is the sort of internal monologue that can be found in the book:

“Life is a beauty contest. And I’m sick of competing in it, sick of being a smiling, pretty little princess. There was another contest that mattered now – a contest for Cerulea, one of life and death.”

There is very little in terms of character development and the biggest draw of the story – the relationship and bond between the mermaids – ends up being a big disappointment. Serafina and her best friend Neela literally bump swim into the other mermaids and from there on instantly develop a bond of sisterhood. They all sound like each other too and it’s hard to differentiate each mermaid. Considering the diversity of backgrounds and how they are each from a different part of the world, it is disquieting when the extent of a character’s ethnicity is limited to an Indian sari or to “almond-shaped eyes”. I guess the idea behind this is that “all teenagers are the same” but I think this is naïve at best, reductive at worst.

The right foundation was just right there for this to be a resounding success. What a shame that Deep Blue isn’t all that good. My experience reading it can be summarised thusly: it was equal parts me going “well, this is cheesy fun” and “wow, this is bad”. Ultimately, the terribleness of its flaws became so overwhelming they eclipsed any of its promising elements.

Rating: 4 – Bad

Reading Next: One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

barnes & noble Book Depository UK amazon_uk

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook & iBooks

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  • Merlfriend
    May 20, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I’ve read a couple of industry articles that seem to indicate that the characters, the setting, the politics, and indeed the over-arching plot, were given to Donnelly as a package. That is, she’s basically fleshing out a committee’s ideas–its their product. It might have been difficult for her to include all the world-building they wanted in this first installment in an elegant way and under deadline. At the very least, it may have been un-inspiring to work that way. I wondered about her accepting this contract when I first heard about it; she was the last author I would have thought of for the job. She has such a lovely quirky, literary sensibility when left to her own devices.

  • Ana
    May 20, 2014 at 10:47 am

    @Meflfriend – ah. That would make sense, I guess. After hearing such lovely things about her writing, I was really surprised to encounter something so…lackluster.

  • John
    May 20, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Donnelly’s books are amazing. Please trust me when I say that this one is not an example of what she does well. Her book A NORTHERN LIGHT is one of the most pivotal YA’s in my life because of its portrayal of girl power and history. Her writing is exquisite. I had high hopes but knew this would be a major departure for her – and if she’s writing a book as a publisher request, that’s even bigger. :/ While this book may be lacking, her others are not by any means.

  • Victoria Van Vlear
    May 20, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    It sounds like Disney is failing in their attempts at fantasy novels. I was very disappointed with their version of Snow White, Fairest of Them All, and it sounds like Deep Blue is similar.

  • Meghan
    May 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    It’s such a shame that this sounds disappointing. For me this falls along the lines of The Tea Rose, which was Donnelly’s first book and really doesn’t hold up to the stand-alone later ones. Like the earlier commenters have said, she can be a really amazing writer, with A Northern Light the best example and a phenomenal book.

  • Kate K.F.
    May 20, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    I had these same issues when I read an ARC. I loved the ideas of it, the diversity, the world-building, but it felt like a video game where its one thing after another. Every rest is an info-dump and the plot is always directly in their path. It also felt like two books, there was the build up to the ceremony where it was a little slower and it was possible get a sense of the first kingdom then boom gone. After that it was plot, plot, infodump which left me not actually caring about the characters.

  • Rachel G
    May 20, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    That’s a shame, because I loved her last book, Revolution. I guess I’ll give this one a miss.

    If you want to read another mermaid book, Ingo by Helen Dunmore is excellent.

  • Anya
    May 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I DNF’d this one around page 100 and I’m so glad I did. I had similar concerns and just couldn’t handle the ridiculousness of the mermaid’s clothes and how different cultures were handled 🙁 I keep hoping for an awesome mermaid book, but this was definitely not the one I wanted!

  • Sarah
    May 21, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Yes, this was so disappointing because it could have been the definitive mermaid book and instead it felt like a novelisation of Barbie in a Mermaid Tale with massive amounts of unconvincing (e.g. the tea thing) info dumping thrown into the mix.

  • sara brown
    August 2, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Donnelly needs to fade away in to her Owen mean world!

  • Anonymous
    August 2, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Donnelly needs to fade away in to her Owen mean world!

  • Publshd
    November 4, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    Big disappointment! I agree the packaging is wonderful; richness of the book cover is what made me pick it up. Too bad it was already outlined for the author. It reads like a class project. TMI way too much info – plot and pace suffer – bad form for Disney to seek an author with established reputation to flesh out a break-room or happy hour idea!

  • Noemi
    November 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Hello, here my review of this book, I liked too much!



  • Anonymous
    April 1, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    do u think in the end mahali and sera are together?!

  • Anonymous
    April 1, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    do u know wat pg isabella gets an arrow ?!?!?

  • jada
    April 7, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    what is the setting of deep blue gosh

  • rebekah
    October 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    I just got done reading this book and i honestly thought it was a very good book. To me it was very interesting and it always kept me wondering what was going to happen next. Most of you guys are saying that it is just like disney movies but really its not. There is so much detail and its also a little bit “gory” unlike disney.

  • Anonymous
    October 6, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    this does not talk about the book enough

  • Anonymous
    May 11, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    I like the book just the pronouncing of the words caught me off guard because some of them are very strange to say but otherwise I liked the book but the ending is daunting I didn’t see it coming I have all of the series except for the newest book songspell which I do not believe has been released but I look forward to reading t he others In the series

  • Anonymous
    May 11, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    I agree with you rebekah I don’t know of any Disney movie that has this much detail I believed it was a pretty good book

  • Meg
    November 12, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Her books are amazing. My opinion is that this series is her best ever. You need to read the other books before you say they are so bad.

  • Anonymous
    March 23, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    It’s kinda boring 🙁

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