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.

Review and Giveaway: Alias Hook, Lisa Jensen

Note: I received a copy of Alias Hook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

When publishers release their seasonal catalogues, I make note of all the books that sound interesting, in my TBR spreadsheet. This is to stop myself from immediately requesting 50 review books, which would only lead to my having way too many books to read and not enough time to read them all. So usually what happens is that I forget about all of them until they’re already published and I can just get them from the library. In the case of Alias Hook, I could not allow this to happen. I was so excited for this book that I put a reminder in my calendar to request a review copy in June.

And look at this excellent cover!

Let me tell you what this is right here. Alias Hook is the backstory of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, starting with his life as a Restoration-era privateer. There is nothing in that sentence that doesn’t make me shriek with joy. Cursed by a former lover, Hook must live forever in Neverland, perpetually fighting with Peter Pan and group after group of Lost Boys, never able to leave the Neverland, never able to die.

“It’s Hook or me this time,” the boy jeered as the massacre began. But it’s never him. And it’s never me. Since then, he has defeated me innumerable times, but never quite to the death. He wills it so, and his will rules all. . . . Is it any wonder I so often tried to kill him? Would not his death break the enchantment of this awful place and release us both? But I can never best him. He flies. He has youth and innocence on his side, and the heartlessness that comes with them. I have only heartlessness, and it is never, ever enough.

Time after time, with new batches of Lost Boys, new Wendys come to be mothers, Peter Pan wages war on Captain Hook and his new batch of pirates. Time after time, Hook and his men lose, and he sees them all massacred — men who were once Lost Boys themselves, and have returned to Neverland as adults, to be pirates. The cycle never changes. Until one day, an adult woman from 1950s England appears in the Neverland.

Y’all, I couldn’t have enjoyed this book more. Nothing about it was unfun. Jensen takes the inherent creepiness and weirdness of the Peter Pan character and dials them up to eleven. I won’t be able to watch Peter Pan Live this winter without thinking of this book and getting a crawly feeling down my spine about that character. (That doesn’t mean I won’t watch Peter Pan Live. I am going to watch it SO HARD because it’s going to be the greatest television event of our generation.)

I could have done with a higher degree of Restoration-era privateering from Hook prior to his being trapped in Neverland for centuries, but that is just personal preference. I love privateering. Jensen sensibly spends most of her time showing us the man Hook has become — a man weary of the senseless deaths of his pirate underlings, a man who puts on the persona of the bravura pirate captain though it becomes increasingly unnatural to do so — rather than the man he used to be. The few glimpses we have of Past Hook are quite unpleasant, and it makes sense that we don’t hang out with him much in his privateering raping-and-pillaging days. That would make it difficult to get behind his reformed-man status and romance with Stella. (Um, spoilers, but like, as soon as a thirty-eight-year-old woman appears in Neverland, you know she’s going to get with Hook, right?)

I’d criticize the mythology of Neverland — it’s reasonable enough that Neverland exists as a necessity for children’s dreams in the real world, but the mechanics of that mythology aren’t very well fleshed out. It’s fine. I skipped past that stuff. I took in the gist and tuned out the details that didn’t interest me. I went into this book predisposed to like it, and I had a really, really good time reading it.

And now the giveaway! St. Martin’s is offering a copy of Alias Hook (with its gorgeous cover) to one lucky reader! Complete the below Google Form by the end of this month (31 July) to be entered for this giveaway. I’ll select a winner at random and announce it on 1 August. This contest is open to US readers only (sorry, international folks!).

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Recommended by:

Aw, this book was cute.  I liked it.  There were some things about it that could have been improved, but it was a quite endearing story.  It’s set in an alternate Victorian universe where everyone flies about on tremendous flying machines that run on a particular kind of gas; the main character is this kid Matt Cruse who flies on a passenger airship for a living, having lost his father, also an airship crewman.  He meets a high-spirited girl called Kate who is on a hunt for these flying cloud creatures that her now-dead grandfather always wanted to discover, and they get up to all kinds of hijinks.   And there are pirates.

Of course the sky pirate thing has been done to perfection by the film of Stardust, and after that any other sky pirates are just not quite the same, much like all other pirate movies aren’t ever going to touch the first Pirates of the Caribbean because it was perfect and contained all the perfect things you need for a perfect pirate movie (including, it turns out, and I don’t know how anyone could have predicted that this was necessary, Geoffrey Rush.  Apparently it’s just no go making a pirate movie without Geoffrey Rush).  But I digress.

I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but it’s a pleasant one, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed up late to finish it.  The cloud cats were very cool, and the ship people were entertaining and amusing.