Sea Change, James Powlik

Dell, 1999, 481 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23508-1

Hey, an oceanic thriller! No, it’s not JAWS. Tagline: “There’s a new terror under the sea with a mind and a hunger of its own.” No, it’s not JAWS. It opens with a few death, continues with a few more deaths, and features quite a few more deaths before the end comes by. No, it’s not JAWS. Though, like most aquatic monster thrillers, the comparisons are hard to ignore.

It’s a shame, really; Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film so definitely imprinted itself on the collective unconscious that any novel about a roughly similar situation (danger underwater!) will labor under undue expectations. But then again, it allows us critics to make easy comparisons and skimp out on actual critical content.

Which is fortunate, given that Sea Change stands up as a particularly average thriller, JAWS comparisons or not.

You know the drill; at least one person dies in the prologue, in a gruesome manner that can be delightfully interpreted as a supernatural event. Then the protagonist comes in, an oceanographer named Brock Garner. Fortunately, he’s described as being “renegade”, thereby qualifying to be the hero. (When was the last time you read a novel about a professional hero described as “a loyal follower”, “unimaginative” or “strictly average”?) The female sidekick doesn’t come in long after. Ellie Bridges is a doctor, easily embodying the motherly characteristics of any good love interest. (Oh yeah; she’s also a renegade doctor. Good match.)

But that’s not all! The antagonist is a rich (uh-huh) shallow (yah) media-hungry (familiar, yet?) pseudo-environmentalist (aren’t they all?) magnate who, oh heavens, married Brock’s ex-wife. Don’t worry; she’ll come around to our stalwart hero for some much-needed true lovin’. Plus, the clueless antagonist will eventually make an ambition-driven mistake or two that will effectively seal his fate. It all comes together in the end. Natural disaster plus military conspiracy plus human conflict here and there and pretty soon, you’re talkin’ thrillah!

Mix in the requisite evil father, capable military units, more gruesome deaths and a countdown to some major havoc, and you get the thriller that you expect. Granted, Sea Change gets better as it advances, even including a few spectacular scenes toward the ending as all means necessary are taken to stop the evil menace. (Which, predictably enough, isn’t completely stopped in the epilogue.)

There’s a certain journeyman quality to Sea Change in that it does the job, but with no extras. If you’re stuck with the book and want to care about the characters, you will, but they won’t grab you by the throat by themselves. In much the same vein, the various incidents are interesting, but not overly so; for his next novel, Powlik could use some brush-up in convincing dialogues and sustained tension. It’s a novel whose essence is hard to isolate, liquefied as it is in a sea of averageness.

Which would have been fine if it would have been snappy, but Sea Change isn’t, dragging along for far too long while carefully setting up the mechanics of its plot. At least one subplot (the insensitive father-figure with a secret to hide) could easily have been removed, along with many other sections that don’t really advance anything or give us something new. With thrillers of this sort, we know where we’re going; we don’t need to have our hands held along the way.

Fortunately, few of the above should apply if all you’re looking for is decent time-wasting entertainment. Powlik hasn’t wowed anyone with Sea Change, but at least he demonstrates his ability to write a baseline thriller. The plentiful technical details are reasonably convincing (be advised that there’s a glossary hidden at the end), the monster hasn’t been seen before and the ending delivers a reasonable amount of bang for the effort invested into it. As far as nautical thrillers go, it’s no, say, Steve Alten’s Meg, but it’ll do.

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