Daryl Gregory – Harrison Squared

darylgregory-harrisonsquaredHarrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.

Last year I read a great many rave reviews for Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty and We’re All Completely Fine. I’d also heard Jonathan Strahan mention Harrison Squared as one of his books to look forward to in the coming months, so my interested was already piqued when a review copy arrived. The story sounded really cool, even if I know almost nothing about Lovecraft’s work other than that it’s problematic (to put it mildly) and it features tentacly monsters of the Deep. And while I still don’t feel very motivated to go and read Lovecraft’s work, I enjoyed Gregory’s interpretation of it tremendously and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for his work in the future. What made Harrison Squared so great? 

There were many elements that made the book a wonderful read. Firstly and most importantly, there was Harrison himself. At sixteen, Harrison is very much both a teen and an adult. In first chapter we see him both take care of his mum and be angry with her for having to do so. He’s very self-sufficient and while not quite resentful of the fact, he does sometimes chafe at the need to be that independent. As his mum is a single parent often liable to go into Absent-Minded Professor mode, or AMP-ing as Harrison calls it, he’s learned to do things for himself. Yet their mutual love, loyalty and affection is clear from the scenes they share on the page and I really loved the bond between them.

Harrison’s lost both his dad and his leg in what he thinks was a freak boating accident when he was three and Gregory incorporates both of these in an interesting way. Harrison is severely afraid of open water since losing his dad and it comes into play beautifully here, as he needs to manage his fear to be able to search for his mother. He’s also got a temper which is suggested is due to the trauma of the accident. I love how Harrison deals with his flaring temper; he takes stock of himself, analysing what his body is doing and using this as a way to control his emotions. This awareness of his body stretches further into the plot through his absent leg. The fact that Harrison has a prosthetic leg is just a natural part of who Harrison is, it is not an issue to Harrison, even if it sometimes is to others. It doesn’t limit Harrison in what he can do, but Gregory does ‘use’ elements of the consequences of missing a limb to further the plot. Not just in the way people react to him, but more importantly and more subtly through the phantom pain Harrison experiences at points throughout the book. I really liked Gregory’s approach here.

Of course Harrison isn’t alone, he has a cast of supporting characters. My favourite was Lub, a young Dweller of the Deep. I loved his sense of adventure, his quirky humour and his insatiable curiosity. Also Lub discovering comics and manga was priceless. Due to his nature, Lub is of necessity a mostly secret ally, but Harrison does have a friend from school, who becomes the third in their little band: Lydia. A scion of one of Dunnsmouth’s oldest families, she is Harrison’s window into this strange community he’s found himself stranded in. Lydia is also his introduction to the Involuntaries. I loved, loved the concept of the Involuntaries and the fact that Harrison is confronted with his own assumptions about the students around him. The finger cant they use, is so cool! It reminded me of the Drasnian secret language a lot. Gregory cleverly mirrors the adults’ secret society in the Involuntaries and I loved their covert resistance.

After his mother’s disappearance Harrison’s Aunt Selena travels down to Dunnsmouth to stay with him, while the search for his mum is ongoing. Selena is fantastic, she exactly the sort of cool aunt any teen would want and her interactions with Harrison, but also with Salem, the local taxi chauffeur who drives her around the area. She’s funny and has some bite to her, but she clearly has a good heart and cares for Harrison and his mum. While the emotional focus of the book is on Harrison and his mum and his friendship with Lub and Lydia, there is also a little romance in the book, but not where you’d expect it. I really liked the romantic elements Gregory slipped in and they made me smile every time they were ‘on screen’.

The setting of the novel is bleak and very atmospheric. The little town of Dunnsmouth is completely creepy with its dreary architecture and somewhat spooky inhabitants. The local boogey man the Scrimshander was absolutely terrifying, especially when he actually turns up and his powers are fully revealed. He made for a compelling villain and a frightening one. While the narrative is filled with haunting places and spooky locations, the school was absolutely terrifying, from its labyrinthine layout, to its dreary interior, its dreadful cafeteria, to that cave-like pool room. While the story and monsters were scary, it was the setting that made it truly chilling.

The one downside to Harrison Squared is the number of questions I was left with after finishing the book. Will there more? There has to be more; I mean I have so many questions left. Will Harrison’s mum be fine? What the hell is Isabel? What have the Deep Ones and the Voluntaries unleashed? I’m really hoping Gregory is working on a sequel, because I want to know what happens next. Harrison Squared isn’t YA, despite its teen protagonists, but it is definitely suitable to teen readers though and it has much crossover potential. If you like the spooky stuff and a good old tale of mystery, then I can’t recommend Harrison Squared enough.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.