Review: Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly

Oh marvelous Audra of Unabridged Chick for putting me onto Amberlough by describing it (accurately) as “a gay spy thriller that’s allegedly Le Carre meets Cabaret.” This is a terrific and accurate description, although Cabaret is already pretty gay. Please hold while I go down a rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos from Cabaret and then conclude that this piecemeal bullshit is no good and I need to watch the movie again in its entirety. Enjoy this book cover while you’re waiting.

Amberlough

Cyril De Paul is a half-hearted spy for the government of Amberlough, one of four loosely affiliated governments in Gedda. His target (and lover) is Aristide Makricosta, a louche and lovely smuggler and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. And Cordelia Lehane (don’t you love everyone’s name?) is a dancer at the Bee and a small-time drug smuggler looking to improve her lot. All three of them get caught up in politics when Cyril’s cover is blown and he has to turn spy for the conservative (read: fascist) One State Party that’s threatening to gain control over all of Gedda.

One good thing about Amberlough, a book I enjoyed tremendously and hope you will all read so that the sales are good and we get a sequel,1 is that it’s one of those books you can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to like it or not. As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, if you find the aesthetic to your taste after the first few chapters — even if you are thinking “there are a lot of geopolitics happening here” — you’re going to like the book. Donnelly lays out the geopolitics early and then gets on with the aesthetic, which I have seen described most accurately as “vintage-glam spy thriller.” Here are the first four chapters for your delectation and delight.

Another A+ thing about Amberlough is its high degree of sex positivity. Cordelia sleeps with who she wants to sleep with and refuses to feel guilty about it, and the book never asks her to. Aristide and Cyril bang on every available surface and sometimes even have slightly kinky sex, which like — this is weird, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered two characters having fun, matter-of-factly kinky sex outside of a romance novel? I rarely enough encounter scenes of characters having fun sex at all outside of romance novels, to be honest. What gives, literature? Amberlough is making you look bad!

And now for a spoilery warning. If you watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and had a minor nervous breakdown in the movie theater along the lines of oh my God what are we going to do what are we going to do oh God what are we going to do (not that I did ha ha no), be prepared to feel something similar when you get to the end of Amberlough. Things are not looking swell for our heroes at the end of Amberlough, although the nice thing is that you’ve spent enough time with them to have a pretty fair sense of how thoroughly each of them is going to fuck shit up for the Ospies after the end of the book. But still. Rogue One minor nervous breakdown warning.

In short, I loved this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it too! Get on it so you can come back and talk to me about it!

  1. Cause yo, this ending is DARK.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon Post

This is my master post for readathon, so strap in! I’ve never done one of these things before!

Hour 11

I was going to say that it’s hour 11 and I haven’t lost steam, but I seem to have read much less in the past three and a half hours than in the foregoing hours. Am I slowing up? Is my old age catching up with me? I did take a break to do some end-of-month budgeting and fold my laundry.

Read: 2 chapters of my genocide book (only 7 chapters now remain!), Paper Girls, vol. 1

Currently reading: Vision, vol. 1

Currently snacking upon: Nothing at the moment! I ate up all my raspberries and now regret not buying two things of raspberries. But it’s five o’clock, which means it’s time for a delicious, refreshing gin and tonic.

Hour 7

Fantastic news, y’all. The protag in Rulebreaker did indeed resolve her dilemma sexily. I chose Rulebreaker based on the results of my Twitter poll, then moved on to the runner-up, Angie Thomas’s NYT-bestselling The Hate U Give.

The Hate U GiveTWAS EXTREMELY SAD. And now I am back on the internets, checking in with my fellow readathoners.

Snacks eaten: Cheese fries. I meant to save them for later but I got super hungry.

Books read: One Crazy Summer, The Ship Beyond Time, Rulebreaker, The Hate U Give

Hour 4

Well this is going great so far. I read One Crazy Summer and The Ship Beyond Time (both awesome) and have now started on Cathy Pegau’s Rulebreaker, a romance novel in which (ahaha I am so excited) a con lady FALLS FOR HER MARK oh noes how will she resolve the resultant moral dilemma? (My prediction: Sexily.)

I also participated in a mini-challenge over at Pirates and Pixie Dust, ate a chocolate marshmallow bunny, and took a quick break to visit with my baby nephew and deposit a check at the bank. Readathon is amazing. I always knew it would be and I was right.

Hour 0 Survey

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

Louisiana! The weather is “who cares, I’m staying inside all day.”

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

This stack here?

(Yes, okay, I went a little nuts at the library.) Hard to say! The Ship Beyond Time is definitely one that I’m excited about, and I also have a romance novel on my ipad about a con lady who falls in love with her target, which sounds pretty great. But One Crazy Summer might be the book I’m most looking forward to: It’s been on my TBR for years and years, multiple bloggers have recommended it to me, and I’m only just now getting around to it.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

ALL OF THEM. I never buy candy, but I bought candy this one time, because Easter-colored M&Ms were on sale for a dollar. So I have that, I have popcorn, I have raspberries and some spinach to keep things healthy, I have a jar o’ cookie dough, I have homemade Oreos and also regular Oreos, and I have cheese fries for dinner. Judge not lest ye be judged.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

Gosh, what can I say? I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years (I KNOW), but I’ve never managed to do a readathon before. I’m very excited. I like cheese fries a lot. My reading eyes are bigger than my reading stomach. I am going to read at least 50% of one book while exercising this morning because I’m really, really trying to stay faithful about exercising.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

This is my first readathon, and I’m having feelings about it! The blogging community is objectively the greatest. I don’t know why it took me this long to participate in one of these things.

Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I impulse-ILLed it because — something? Why did I impulse-ILL this book? Was it honestly just because I was tipsy? I have two drinks let’s say once a week, and even so I haven’t impulse-ILLed a book since that one book about internet trolls that was weirdly sympathetic to internet trolls considering how terrible internet trolls are. I believe that what happened was I encountered this book while I was reading up on racebending for this blog post, and I was slightly tipsy and this book looked sooooo gooooooood and anyway it was a GREAT LIFE DECISION.

“Jenny, are you tipsy — while you are writing this?” NO. I am high on theories of racism and academic prose. Which reminds me, has anyone here read Sara Ahmed? I keep meaning to, and then her books keep being checked out of the library. Also, I feel like theory is a young person’s game. Like if I hadn’t read Judith Butler in college for a course, there is a 0% chance I would ever read Judith Butler now. I am better with praxis.

FAIR CRITIQUE.

Anyway, so this book is terrific. Young gets into the racial coding practices in some of the foundational works of fantasy literature — Tolkien if you’re fancy, Howard (he wrote Conan the Barbarian) for pulp — then comes for the nonsense arguments about “historical authenticity” and how they enact a racist vision of an imagined Middle Ages that draws less on evidence than on instinctive feelings about what that era most probably was like. And then there is this whole excellent chapter about orcs and their horde-like nature and racial coding in that, a chapter that includes the subheading “Orc Societies and Cultures,” which despite the utter misery and terrifyingness of our country’s descent into authoritarianism reminded me that in some respects I am awfully lucky to live here and now in a culture where books have subheadings like “Orc Societies and Cultures” and I can just read them willy-nilly.

hello there Mr. Orc I am sure there is no significance to the fact that you have dark skin and all of Our Heroes are white, white, white as the fresh-fallen snow

My God and then she starts talking about postcolonialism in fantasy stories and apparently there is a Cherokee fantasy author called Daniel Heath Justice whose oeuvre I must deposit directly into my brain. And all this talk about NK Jemisin and her depictions of the colonization of language and ideology in the Inheritance trilogy (which you may recall I really liked), and then as if that isn’t enough greatness for one book, an entire chapter on RaceFail ’09. What a terrific motherfucking book. Here’s a thing Heather Young says:

The caveat that representing characters of colour — and indeed any characters from minority and marginalized backgrounds — should be done with respect, and that doing so does not protect an author from criticism or entitle him or her to congratulations is overlooked, dismissed, and/or taken as a restriction according to this construct. The freedom to speak — write — un-censured is constructed as the freedom to write uncensored.

That last sentence is the tidiest way to phrase that sentiment that possibly I have ever seen.

And then there is a whole bibliography full of articles with titles like “Aboriginality in Science Fiction” and “Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc?” No word of a lie, I went through this bibliography line by line and created myself a reading list based on it. Thanks Routledge. Thanks Helen Young. Thanks universe.

Review: A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl’s book A Hundred Thousand Worlds is not RPF, but RPF resides in its bones. Valerie Torrey is a Gillian Anderson analogue who is taking her son Alex across the country to meet his estranged father Andrew, who stars in a show that sounds strangely similar to Californication. Along the way she stops at various cons, signing autographs and answering questions about her stint on a show called Anomaly, where she met Andrew in the first place.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds

There also feature analogues of Gail Simone and Ed Brubaker and Alan Moore and a range of other comics lights, which if you know comics you may successfully puzzle out and if you do not then you are probably fine to read the book anyway, although you may wonder why we are spending so much time with this Gail character away from the primary mother-son relationship we care about.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is wonderful in many ways, chief amongst them being its affectionate, clear-eyed depiction of fan cultures and the many worlds of geekery. It’s trying to be a lot of things, and it succeeds better at some than others: Interstitial chapters reveal the “origin stories” of real, fictional, and semi-fictional characters within the world of the book, which gets old quickly. On the other hand, Val’s bedtime ritual of telling Alex a (lightly or heavily edited) synopsis of various episodes of Anomaly works brilliantly as a means of building their relationship, the world Val comes from, and Proehl’s vision of raising a geeky kid. It made me want to tell my own nephew stories from my favorite television shows when he gets a little older.

How right you are, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

BUT. While Proehl takes exceptional care in depicting the worlds of geekery, the same cannot be said of his depiction of mental illness. Halfway through the book (spoilers), you learn that when Alex was a toddler, a deranged fan (who also happened to be sleeping with Andrew) shot and killed the Anomaly showrunner’s wife. The book refers to her only as The Woman until the very end, when a reporter shouts out the news that she has killed herself. The few bits of dialogue we get from her are all like this:

You’re her. But you’re older. Are you from the future? Are we in the future now? I’ve wanted so much to talk to you. To tell you how sorry I am. Or I was. Has it happened yet? I think it’s happened for me already and you were younger then. It all feels present. . . . I’m here and I’m talking to you but also right now I’m shooting her. Because if you can’t tell if it’s future or past, then it’s right now. It all happens at once, all the time.

In other words, crazy-person dialogue written by someone who’s never spoken to (or been) a crazy person, in the mouth of a character who receives no interiority or even the courtesy of a name (until she completes suicide). If an author wants to portray a violent mentally ill person, then fine, proceed with caution; but Proehl appears to have taken absolutely no care with this character, and so of course her portrayal reinforces toxic stereotypes about mental illness and violence.

Also, the book mixes up metonymy and synecdoche. Try harder next time.

ETA 21 June 2017: Hi everyone, I have an update! Author Bob Proehl found this post and emailed me to say that I was totally right about the ableism, it was obvious now that someone pointed it out, and he is really sorry and will try to do better next time. It made me come over all warm and fuzzy.

He also made a joke about metonymy and synecdoche that made me feel awful for being snotty about that. I was displacing my annoyance over the portrayal of the mentally ill lady onto this metonymy thing, and that’s mean. Metonymy and synecdoche are really hard to keep straight. Nobody should feel bad about getting them confused.

Review: White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Here’s the summary of White Tears from Goodreads, because I need you to understand my reading experience:

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

White Tears

Doesn’t that summary sound like a light social satire in which a Music World Uproar causes privileged white boys to realize the folly of appropriation? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (that’s a reference to something terrifying that happens in the book). Don’t be fooled: “White Tears is a ghost story” should have gone up front, because holy shit, White Tears is a ghost story. White Tears is primarily a ghost story. When Seth and Carter send their faked song by imaginary Charlie Shaw out into the world, they set into motion a goddamn terrifying ghost story.

real footage of me on a short break from White Tears

I am trying to strike a balance in this post between telling you enough information to get you to read this book and spoiling the reading experience. This book grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a Polaroid picture. It’s Southern gothic written by a Kashmiri British guy. It catches the reader up in Seth’s need to know how his life came to be in this shambles, even when you can clearly see that he’s walking straight into his own doom. It makes privileged white kids pay the bitter, vicious price of the country’s racial sins. It’s the rare ghost story that makes you root for the ghost.

If I had one gripe, it’s that the resolution of White Tears is perhaps a smidge too tidy. What you eventually find out about the ghost and its motivations, about Carter’s family and their history in the American racial landscape, is certainly effective to the story Kunzru’s telling. But in a way, I would have found it more satisfying if the ghost’s revenge on these people had been random and unfair, if Seth and Carter just happened to be the people on whom the ghost’s eye fell. If you’ve read the book, let me know if you agree! I will take arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, whatever, White Tears is still scary af. There’s this one scene, oh my God there is this one scene where Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie are down south talking to a black guy in a pick-up truck, and it will haunt my nightmares always. You’ll know the one when you get to it. Also, the B side of the Charlie Shaw record.

Please read this booooooooooook and then come back and talk to me about it! And also, if you have read other books by Hari Kunzru, what did you think of them? I would like to know more!

Whatever Else You Do, Read This Rachel Dolezal Piece: A Links Round-Up

We made it to another Friday, friends! I hope you all have restful and pleasant weekends scheduled, with lots of yummy foods and indulgent television. But before you get to that, I implore you to give yourselves the unparalleled gift of my first link, a piece about Rachel Dolezal that crashed The Stranger‘s website and hopefully introduced many new people to the superb work of Ijeoma Iluo. So far everyone I’ve sent it to has said “Damn, DAMN” to me — not once but several times — while quoting back to me relevant sections of the article. Feel free to have that response at me on Twitter; I enjoy it.

“I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t blackness that Dolezal doesn’t understand, but whiteness”: Ijeoma Iluo interviews Rachel Dolezal.

The Guardian carried a really fascinating article about separating the artist from the art (and finding ways to acknowledge both artistic brilliance and personal turpitude).

Hysteria, Hillary Clinton, and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a sobering read.

Okay I guess I am a credulous lambkin but this Tampa Bay Times article about farmers’ market produce not really being from local farms blew my mind.

Racebending vs. whitewashing (and another reminder why I love Geeks of Color).

Emily Asher-Perrin on being the uneasy girl in horror movies who nobody believes.

I grabbed Deepak Unnikrishnan’s book on a whim at the library last Saturday, and shortly thereafter I discovered this excellent New Yorker article about him and his book about foreign workers in the UAE.

Welp this remark about what fanfic is for is searingly accurate.

I’m furious at 13 Reasons Why, and this post and this post are two (YES I’M DOING THIS) reasons why. My brother-in-law, who teaches high schoolers, reports that all his students are watching and loving it, and I want to protect all those babies from this harmful nonsense. Ugh.

“Write the things that are weird about your culture, for an audience that isn’t like you”: Six authors of color discuss what they are told when submitting speculative fiction stories to agents and publishers.

I quietly enjoy David Foster Wallace’s essays while feeling very confident that I would loathe his fiction and probably end up wanting to beat him over the head with a tennis racket, so this article on men recommending David Foster Wallace until the heat death of the sun really resonated with me. This Sarah McCarry response includes an excellent anecdote.

Why are you still reading this! Go read that Rachel Dolezal piece!

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.80: Choosing What to Read, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander

I am so sorry this podcast is late, y’all. Life got on top of me, and I realized last Sunday that I hadn’t even glanced at the rough files for podcast, let alone begun editing. BUT it is here now, and we get to have the unparalleled delight of hearing Whiskey Jenny’s response to the FIRST FANFIC SHE HAS EVER READ. We also discuss how we find the books we read, and we review Patrick O’Brian’s book Master and Commander. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s the time signatures for each segment, if you want to skip around!

1:19 – Literary adaptation announcement
1:56 – What we’re reading
5:36 – Serial Box Book Club
15:10 – How we find and choose what books we’re going to read
34:15 – Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
44:41 – What We’re Reading Next Time

And here are the books we discussed this ep!

Philip Marlowe!

Here’s the news about the new Philip Marlowe casting!

What We’re Reading

His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett

Serial Box Book Club

We’re reading episodes three and four of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. Thanks again to Serial Box for letting us have these episodes to review!

Where We Get Recommendations

Europa Editions
Soho Press
Balzer & Bray
Riverhead
The Great 2017 Book Preview (The Millions)
The Watch
Granta: New Irish Writers

For This Time

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
“Duende,” by astolat (the fic we read!)
“Penguins” article on Fanlore.org

For Next Time

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

Not a Dumb American: Angola Edition

Note: I received a copy of Njinga of Angola from the publisher for review consideration. This has not affected the contents of my post.

My brilliant friend Alice told me that this book existed (thanks, Alice!), and I hied me off to the publisher at once to ask for a review copy. I love African history and I love BALLER QUEENS, so you can see that this was a match made in heaven. Njinga was a seventeenth-century queen in what is now northwestern Angola. At a time when European rule was sweeping across Africa, Njinga successfully ruled the kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo at a time when Portuguese rule was the norm; her political savvy and military success forced the European colonizers to treat with her even as they ran roughshod over numerous other sovereign nations in Africa. Njinga was also a slave trafficker (slave export was one way that she preserved her economic power) and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Njinga of Angola

Njinga of Angola is the first ever (I know!) English-language biography of this queen. Linda Heywood has done a tremendous amount of archival research to track down Njinga’s story. The sister of Ngola a Hari, a king who was very medium at getting what he wanted from the Portuguese, Njinga did not begin her political career until she was thirty-five years old. She was deputized by her brother (who had previously killed her infant son and sterilized her and her sisters to prevent them from becoming a threat to his rule) to negotiate with the Portuguese on his behalf.

but for real, Njinga was on a legit diplomatic mission to the Portuguese

After this mission, she gained sufficient popularity and power to feel comfortable murdering her jerk brother and taking over his throne. Then she married the Imbangala gentleman who had custody of her brother’s little son. At the wedding, she killed the kid and threw him in the river.

This story brings up (for me) one of the problems with Njinga’s story: Like a lot of African history, we’re depending heavily on European records to know what’s going on. Later on in life, Njinga was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with major European religious and political figures in an effort to achieve her diplomatic goals. But even then, historians have very little access to her innermost thoughts, depending instead on the image of herself she was presenting to powerful Europeans as a powerful African. So we are able to know about her only what European writers saw, or what she chose to present to European priests, kings, and governors. Anything they didn’t see, we can’t know. It makes for a slightly bloodless story, as the reader is necessarily at one or two removes from Njinga’s true motives and feelings.

With that being said, though, Heywood makes it clear how savvy Njinga became to what the Europeans expected and wanted from her, and what she could expect and request from them. Recognizing that the Europeans were using the pretext of moral virtue to steal land, and aware that her own military successes gave her a degree of bargaining power, she used the idea of cannibal savages as a tool to defend her own moral virtue and claim to the land: Whereas these groups of Africans are bad and wicked, with barbaric customs and irredeemable morals, my group of Africans is righteous and Christian.

The most tragic thing in this book (to me, a sisters-having person) is that Njinga’s two sisters were taken captive by the Portuguese, and they were spies for her. I was very struck by how brave they were and what impressive assets to Njinga as a ruler — one sister spied for her for years until she was caught and executed. The other converted (allegedly) to Christianity under Portuguese rule, and her (apparent) piety was a crucial bargaining chip when Njinga was requesting protection as a fellow Christian. Negotiations over the second sister’s release went on for years, and by the time the women were reunited, the sister — now called by her Christian name of Barbara, formerly known as Kambu — had been a prisoner of the Portuguese for over a decade.

Njinga threw herself on the ground in front of Barbara, rubbing herself in the soil as was customary when a person received a favor or when dependents paid homage to masters or superiors. Given permission to approach Barbara, Njinga kissed her sister’s hand and knelt once more, letting her face drop to the ground once again. After this ceremonial greeting, the two sisters embraced and for a long time held on to each other tenderly, not speaking a word, but kissing each other repeatedly.

Next I would like to read an article / series of articles / whole damn book about contesting memories of Njinga. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Contemporary Portuguese accounts often lean heavily on Njinga’s conversion to Christianity and how sincere it may have been, or on the notion that she was a cannibal savage who sacrificed humans in barbarian rituals (this carrying of course a very, very different moral valence than the actions of Portuguese slave traders in the same historical period). In post-independence Angola, Njinga has been revered as a symbol of resistance to colonizing powers.

Njinga of Angola is a tremendous feat of research and storytelling, a vital piece of the massively complex story of African resistance and diplomacy in the face of European colonialism. Much recommended.

Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice

There is nothing quite as cleansing as finally reading a book that’s been on your TBR list for untold ages. Ana of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it in 2012, which is on the outer edge of how long I’ll let a book linger on my TBR spreadsheet. If I’ve let it go for five years without reading it, I have to accept that I didn’t truly want to read it in the first place.1 Alice from Of Books reminded me more recently why I wanted to read it, so thanks to both of you, lovely blogging friends!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

As Ana and Alice both mention in their posts, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets recalls almost irresistibly I Capture the Castle, a comparison of which I had absolutely no recollection when I started reading. And perhaps it’s best that I didn’t; comparing a new book to one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction is hardly a recipe for success. Please forget I said that. Except don’t, because I want you to read this book. Except do, because I don’t want to get your expectations too high.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a girl called Penelope who lives in a ramshackle old manor house called Milton Magna in postwar England. She rattles around her old manor house with her younger brother Inigo, who dreams of being a pop star, and her beautiful, widowed mother, married at seventeen and widowed in the Second World War. As Penelope is waiting tidily at the train station, a total stranger swoops in and carries her off to have tea with her family, and Penelope’s life changes entirely. In a manner that is not entirely unlike, yet not so much like that it should raise your expectations in a significant way, the events of I Capture the Castle.

I can at least say that without specifically remembering the I Capture the Castle comparison,2 I was immediately charmed by The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Penelope spends a great deal of time thinking about romantic love; but the fundamental relationships in the book are between Penelope and Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Penelope and her maddening, dramatic, married-too-young mother. The book was a frothy delight from the first page, and if it’s not exactly up to the standard set by I Capture the Castle, it’s at least along the lines of a lesser Dodie Smith book or an ungrim Maggie O’Farrell novel. If that’s something you need (in this grim dystopian hellscape), go forth and read it with my blessing.

(Note that I had to bust out the old “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” category for this book. That is an exact description of how I felt about it.)

  1. The oldest book currently on there dates to December 2013.
  2. So you should forget it too! Forget it at once!

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us, Emily Skrutskie

Huge thanks to Sarah of The Illustrated Page for putting me onto Emily Skrutskie’s indie-published The Abyss Surrounds Us. It’s about a teenage marine biologist, Cassandra, who trains genetically engineered sea monsters (called Reckoners) to accompany merchant ships around the dangerous seas of Future America and fight off pirate attacks. But during her first solo mission, her Reckoner fails, the ship is destroyed, and Cas herself is taken prisoner. The pirate captain, Santa Elena, orders Cas to train the Reckoner pup she’s somehow acquired. If she fails, she dies. If she succeeds, she risks upsetting the delicate balance (of money and power and biology, even!) of the world that’s been her whole life. Also, the pirate girl who’s been assigned to watch Cas aboard ship is pretty hot.

The Abyss Surrounds Us

Look, “sea monster trainer gets kidnapped by sexy pirate girl” is a sufficiently great elevator pitch that there was no chance of my not reading this book. I checked it out on a library day when the only books I wanted were straightforward fun, and this one absolutely delivered: Cas’s adventures on the high seas, her burgeoning relationship with Swift the pirate girl, her tentative navigation1 of the treacherous world of Santa Elena’s pirate ship, and her ongoing moral quandaries were everything you could ask for in a fantasy YA novel.

The nitty-gritty details of training a Reckoner — Bao is a turtle-type sea monster, although there are also octopus and whale types — were a particular delight. Cas has been helping to train Reckoners from her earliest childhood, but Bao is the first one she’s had to train all on her own. The book never forgets that Bao is a monster, albeit one who’s been genetically programmed to accept the training Cas is giving him. But even when he’s doing what Cas wants, there’s a perpetual risk that he’ll turn on her. The parallels to Cas’s own situation aboard the pirate ship, obeying Santa Elena’s orders while dreaming of escape, are noticeable.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a first novel, and certainly there are things about it that could have been improved: I’d have liked to know more about Cas’s world, and in particular I’d have liked to see a stronger motivation for Cas to start wondering whether the Reckoner/merchant world she comes from is all that she had believed. I also felt that Cas’s background was a little underexplored; this post on Reading (As)(I)an (Am)erica gets into the representation of POC characters in the book (the author’s white).

Despite these minor quibbles, it’s one of my most fun reading experiences this year. Fans of stories of the sea will love this one, and I’m already eager to read the second book in the duology (out this month).

  1. Metaphorical navigation — she’s not actually navigating the actual ship.