This was another Netgalley book which I half expected to start and then decline. I fully expected to hate the main character-narrator, Calder White, being as he makes it clear from the beginning that as a mer he is a killer, a devourer of soul or spirit, leaving empty flesh husks hidden when he's finished.
Which is actually a little odd, because from the quick research I've done mermaids (sorry, Calder, merfolk) aren't known for eating people, per se. They are known for luring ships onto rocks to sink them, but the legends usually show them taking floundering sailors down to underwater kingdoms; I don't know if it's always been an assumption or not, but I always understood their role to be in the sating of … other appetites. I didn't see anything out there showing mermaids to be predatory toward humans – rather to the contrary.
Regardless, Brown's merfolk are predators in the grand tradition of vampires, using seduction and guile to lure those unsuspecting citizens off to their deaths, and Calder is not all that happy about it. Whether due to the circumstances of his childhood or because he has a more powerful imagination than many, he doesn't like being responsible for the deaths of vacationers out enjoying themselves on the water. Emotions are visible in a cloud around every human, and the ones glowing bright orange, the happy ones, are the ones who provide the most sustenance. He resists as long as possible, as much as possible … but it's like being a starving vegetarian at a Southern barbecue. There's not much choice.
Calder is called home (literally – by cell phone) by his sisters, who are determined to finally have the revenge they have sought for years, against the man they blame for the death of their mother. For years Jason Hancock has avoided Lake Superior, where it all began so long ago – but now he's back, bringing his family: a wife, usually wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis, and two daughters. The younger daughter is considered into the siblings' plans as bait – put her in danger, and the father will follow, and pay his debt; but Calder prefers to approach the older daughter, teenaged Lily. She's an ideal target for his seduction: she's different, that's clear from the beginning. She dresses differently, and loves poetry, and is filled with the vulnerability of a dreamer. She's perfect – as bait, as prey … and also for Calder to fall in love with. Which he does. Which rather complicates the plan: it's harder to be objective about someone who loves his disabled wife and whose daughter is someone whose hero you suddenly want to be. As he's already found, it's harder to kill someone you see as a person rather than "prey" or "target". His more bloodthirsty sisters will never forgive him if he ruins their revenge … and when they choose to be unforgiving it's a little harder to live with than in ordinary families.
I thought I'd hate Calder; I thought I'd hate the romance – I'm the one who said the romance in Twilight was a little like me falling for a gingerbread man. I was wrong: I liked both a lot. It's all very prettily done. It's a male point of view, unusual in books that fit into this pigeonhole, and it works. It's also a point of view with just enough matter-of-fact alienness to work; when he avoids sitting by the fire at a picnic, it isn't explicitly stated why – but it isn't because he's too warm. The moments in the book where he is in his natural element, and the glimpses of what it's like – flying through the water, weightless and cold, the odd comradeship with the shoals of fish, the wrecks at the bottom of Lake Superior – are wonderful; I wish there had been more of that, more of what it's like to function as a merman.
He's a good character, is Calder, torn between his duty and his newfound rebellious spirit. In some ways he's a thin read, still adolescent in spite of decades of life – but his strength shows itself in his ability to go without taking advantage of the appetizing orange-glowing humans all around him all summer long. His sisters can't figure that one out – even his favorite, generally nicer than the other two, doesn't understand it. Hungry? Eat. That's that. Those three are nicely differentiated from each other – maybe a little too different, physically; I don't believe there's ever an explanation of why the three have very different coloring and, apparently, original ethnicity. And Lily … Her character does not go tremendously deep, but under the circumstances it works: it is Calder's POV, after all, and whatever he feels for her, he doesn't know her very well. But, like him, she has several chances to prove herself, and does. She was not perfect, even in Calder's eyes, but she is well-written. Her relationship with her little sister is perfect – love-hate-aggravation-affection; the sister herself is well portrayed, which is a hallmark of good writing in my, er, book: badly written children irritate me no end.
I think that, in addition to being the first book of a series, Lies Beneath (which is a great title, by the way) is the first book I've read featuring mermaids. I'm impressed. I look forward to the rest of the series.