In Shark Island by Chris Jameson, a shark attack survivor believes she has already lived through her worst nightmare—she's dead wrong.
Hands grab hold of her arms, start to pull, and she turns to see a mop-headed surfer straddling his board. It bumps her again as he drags at her and that's the moment when the worst thing of all happens. Worse than the blood and the tugging and the screams.
Nothing so far has terrified her more than this moment of hope.
She grabs at him, pulls at the wet board, and he's yelling at her to be still, to let him help. Naomi's screams rip from her throat, heart racing so hard that she starts to black out again, and the surfer can see he's got no choice. He drops off the board and into the water, puts a hand under her butt, and tries to hoist her onto the board.
They both see the shark coming back.
Naomi Cardiff used to love the ocean. Then, a stupid mistake splashes her across the news, spurring the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to fast-track an experimental process that promises to lure seals—and thus, their primary predator, the Great White shark—away from heavily populated beaches.
By broadcasting an irresistible frequency, the WHOI hopes to reprogram the seals' natural migrating instincts, convincing them to gather at the remote Bald Cap rather than the touristy Cape Cod.
The scientific team behind the project, headed by Dr. Kat Cheong, includes audio expert Eddie Wolchko, grad student Rosalie Suarez, and behavioral scientist Dr. Tye Ashmore. Naomi, still adjusting to her new life post-shark attack and determined to be a serious reporter, joins the quartet on the good ship Thaumus—piloted by Captain Amadou N'Dour and his first mate, Peter Bergting—in order to write a profile on the project on its first run.
The WHOI group has the best of intentions—they just want to prevent future shark attacks. However, there are plenty of people who want to see them fail. Among the forces mustering against them: a militant group of SeaLove members who are following the Thaumus in an attempt to hijack their broadcast frequency and a pair of disgruntled fishermen, Jamie Counihan and Walter Briggs, who fish the waters around Bald Cap and can't afford to lose daily catches to hundreds of seals.
Then, there's the storm building up around them and the fact that the signal is making the sharks act unusually aggressive…
As we all know from countless horror movies and cautionary tales, it's never a good idea to mess with Mother Nature.
A larger bit of debris floated nearby, perhaps more reliable. He let go, hoping he could get the chair later, and he swam to the dark thing floating on the water. Cushions from the cabin, maybe. No. Ivor's duffel, that was it. The fabric had soaked through, and looked black, but it was floating, so he reached out. His fingers grazed it on the first try, and as he reached again the thing turned in the water and he saw it wasn't Ivor's duffel at all.
It was Ivor. The top half of Ivor. His face shone pale and bloodless, his mouth frozen in a rictus of horror. Below the waist, there was only ragged flesh and trailing viscera.
Shark Island sets up a scenario familiar to anyone who loves nature-gone-wrong movies. All of the ingredients are there for a predictable paint-by-numbers thriller.
Jameson, however, zigs when you expect him to zag. Just when you're anticipating a particular twist, it's thwarted at the crucial moment. POV characters you expect to survive, or at least make it further in the story, are snuffed out with minor fanfare. The death scenes are particularly lightning-fast and brutal, which makes them all the more sobering and realistic.
The primary message here, as with most animal attack horror stories, is that humans mess with nature at their own peril. Just because science can do something, doesn't mean it should. Solving one problem (too many seals luring sharks into tourist waters) only has a domino effect, creating all new problems (sharks willing to bash through hulls to stop a siren song).
“They will send someone to check on us,” she said. “It'll be hours yet. And when that someone comes, the sharks might attack their boat.”
Tye cocked his head. “Come on. They could have gone on smashing at our hull for days and nothing would've happened. If that one hadn't smashed in the propeller shaft, we'd still be afloat.”
“I know you're right. I just… the malice—”
“Sharks don't feel malice,” Tye said. “That's a human trait.”
“How can we really know that?”
“It's what we do. We're supposed to know.”
Kat shrugged. “We think we know. But we're also the geniuses who worked out a way to use acoustics like catnip on seal herds, and never bothered to consider that it might alter other marine life, too. We turned every shark in range of that signal into a hyper-aggressive monster. We did this, Tye. The two of us and Eddie.”
For most of the book, Jameson keeps strictly to scientific reality. These sharks aren't super-intelligent and don't have a personal vendetta against the WHOI crew. Naomi is only attacked in the story's opening because she was foolish enough to be swimming among seals and was mistaken for one of the Great White's natural prey.
Even the plot point that an acoustic signal drives the sharks into a frenzy isn't entirely far-fetched. There are some moments near the climax where the sharks behave in a more Jaws-like fashion, single-mindedly channeling their anger and hunger at the protagonists, but it's still not entirely implausible, as so many entries in this genre tend to be.
One of the strongest, most enjoyable aspects of Shark Island is the diversity of its cast. Naomi is a disabled lesbian whose prosthetic plays a key role in the narrative and whose disability never makes her a liability. Audio engineer Eddie Wolchko is visibly on the Autism spectrum yet is never treated as a joke. Burly fisherman Walter is a 6' 4″ black gay man who shares a devoted friendship with his straight partner, Jamie. Kat is Chinese-American, Rosalie is Latina, and Captain N'Dour is Senegalese.
It's absolutely refreshing to read an action-packed thriller peopled with such interesting characters—people you immediately like and connect with. The diversity makes for a more compelling story, and when the inevitable death scenes come, they're all the more disturbing and crushing.
Shark Island doesn't quite reach the same plateau as Jaws, but that's fine. It's still a strong thriller that stands out from the crowd of imitators. If you're a fan of Anaconda, Piranha, and Deep Blue Sea but want just a hint more realism and representation, this one is a must-read.
It's a great summer beach book—though I'd suggest reading it after you're back from your swim.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.