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.
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).
- Metaphorical navigation — she’s not actually navigating the actual ship. ↩