The Neptune Project
by Polly Holyoke
"Nere has never understood why she's more comfortable and confident swimming with the dolphins that her mother studies than she is hanging out with her classmates on land, but everything falls into place when Nere learns that she is one of a group of kids who-- unbeknownst to them -- have been genetically altered to survive the ocean. These products of 'The Neptune Project' are given a mission to build a better future under the sea, safe from the dangers on land.
But there are some very big problems: non one asked Nere if she wanted to be a science experiment; the other Neptune kids aren't exactly the friendliest bunch; and in order to reach the safe haven of the Neptune colony, Nere and her fellow mutates must swim through hundreds of miles of dangerous waters, relying only on their wits, dolphins, and each other to evade terrifying undersea creatures and a government that will stop at nothing to capture the Neptune kids...dead or alive.
Fierce battles and daring escapes abound as Nere and her friends race to safety in this action-packed aquatic adventure. "
Don’t judge a book by its cover? More like don’t judge a book by its summary! Very little in the inside cover’s description of this book actually prepares you for what The Neptune Project is about. From the summary on the book, you’d expect a fairly typical modern sci-fi book where an average girl who doesn’t quite fit in suddenly gets powers and has to leave her middle school and home (at least, that was what I had thought). What the description doesn’t make you think is that this book actually takes place in a dystopian future where the entire western world has become a communist regime called the Western Collective, the Earth has been ravaged by various disasters, and telepaths are a normal occurrence. That’s the actual world that The Neptune Project throws you into in the first few pages, with basically no warning. This doesn’t technically have an impact on the book itself, I just found it very strange, and one of the least fitting summaries on a book I have ever seen. As to the book itself, it’s yet another YA dystopian book, but let’s get into it.
I’ll be honest with you, this book doesn’t have a ton of positives going for it. It has a few notable characters (namely Dai and Kyel), and some decent underwater fight scenes and general ocean ambience. The group dynamic between Kyel and the other members is different-- since he is strict but not a bad leader and comes to gradually warm up to the main character and I found myself really liking him. And Dai is a charismatic enigma with badboy charm and mysterious past that was enough to keep me at least kind of invested, in that surface-level way that mysterious badboys do. Other characters are functional, and the powers the kids all hold are minorly intriguing. Otherwise, not a lot going on here. The usage of telepathy and the way the author goes about writing it is a unique quirk. Not much more to say about that.
This is definitely a more mediocre read. Outside of the small handful of good characters and the relatively interesting premise, the rest of the book is pretty loose and murky. It is light on plot and world-building, and the entire story seems to simply be a series of occasional contrived fight scenes where something terrible happens, in between a lot of mostly aimless travelling segments that read like the drama in a reality show like Survivor. The plot is that the characters are journeying across the ocean to get to a place, while none of them seem to question why they are going there or if they want to go there, all while the military of the dystopian government attacks them intermittently for no readily apparent reason. On top of the conflict being flat and sporadic, it also comes off as contrived. If the kids can breathe underwater and the military can’t, why can’t they just swim lower down in the ocean where the normal humans can’t get to them? It really doesn’t make a lot of sense how the military tracking them continues to be an issue. The one time this is brought up the author handwaves it by having a random attack by a giant squid, and then I suppose assumes that that will stop people from asking that question. Attached to the weak plot is the weak world building. The Western Collective, what it is, how it works, and how it came to power are all left kind of unexplained, and the explanation we do receive gets progressively more ridiculous. It’s as though the author couldn’t make up her mind about which disaster she wanted to have ended the world, so she just went with all of them. The book references a war, climate change, and a disease outbreak, and I think even a few more as events that have happened, many of these references just made offhand with not much logical follow-through about how that would actually impact the world or the formation of government. And, lastly, though the characters are solid enough, the lead is nondescript. She doesn’t have anything unique about her that really makes her her own character, and is surrounded by people with far more depth. Tied with her flat character is a shoe-horned love triangle that comes from nowhere. She never shows any romantic interest in Dai, and yet that is what we are constantly told. Personally I would have liked it better if she had just stayed “one of the guys” and been in the general friend group like she had been in the rest of the book, rather than having a totally forced and awkward romance with Dai.
So, with all this being said, do I recommend this book? Personally, not particularly. It’s not really a terrible book (despite how I may make it sound)-- I read through it just fine and just about all in one sitting as well--it just doesn’t have a lot going for it. Reading it probably won’t ruin your day, but you also likely won’t get a lot out of it either. Unlike Inhumans, which benefit from its creative setting at least slightly through world-building, The Neptune Project pretty much has a bunch of fight scenes and moderately likable characters and that’s about it. It's kind of a book equivalent of a popcorn action movie. Lots of fighting, lots of dying, and some Survivor-esque group drama. There are worst ways to spend an afternoon than reading this, at least.