The Abyss Surrounds Us

The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie 3 star review The Abyss Surrounds Us
Emily Skrutskie
3 Star Book Review

Okay, Katie,

Put this book on your TBR immediately. It’s sci-fi pirate lesbians with sea monsters, what more do you need to know.

Book synopsis

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-waiting ever since she could walk, raising the giant, genetically engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to point the sea.

Spoiler free book review

The Good

This is among the most promising debuts I’ve read in a while, guys.

  • THAT PREMISE. I’m a sucker for humans + giant animals = powerful partnership (AND DESTRUCTION) stories, and this book delivered almost everything I’d hoped for on that front.
  • Did I mention this is a sci-fi with a lesbian protagonist?
  • The cast is pretty diverse: Cas is Chinese-American, and most of the pirate crew (including the captain and her handful of young-captains-in-training) are both women and people of color.
  • The book takes care to establish its major characters as flawed, complex, conflicted people.
  • We do get to watch a romantic relationship develop, but it’s not the focal point of the story, and it’s written in a thoughtful and overall pretty realistic way.
  • The book shines a light on how a person’s background and current situation shape their sense of morality, and that the moral spectrum largely consists of grey area. That’s right, it’s a debut with a compelling theme, holy crap.

The Could-Be-Improved

But the book does succumb to some of the standard weaknesses you find in debuts.

  • The centerpiece of the book is Cas’s character arc—and although I loved what the book was trying to do with it, I thought it was drawn in too-broad strokes. This is an arc that would have benefited from more nuance and a longer page count. As it is, it’s interesting and enjoyable to read, but felt too rushed and sketchy to be realistic or wholly engaging.
  • Actually, most of the more emotional aspects of the story felt the same way: not quite as developed as they could’ve (should’ve) been. I was certainly interested in the story, but it didn’t quite engage me on an emotional level.
  • There were several significant instances of characters defying the laws of sense and their own motivations, simply for the sake of the plot—and you all know how I feel about that. (Hint: I hate it.) This was especially a problem with some of Cas’s decisions leading up to, within, and after the climax. I won’t lie, guys, this bothered me nigh unto death.

Quick Note About Diversity

(UPDATE 2/23/17: Shenwei @ Reading (As)(I)an (Am)erica has posted an excellent discussion of the book’s unsatisfactory handling of racial diversity. Please give their discussion a read!)

Please note that I’m a white reader, and am wholly unqualified to discuss how the various cultures presented in this novel should have been handled; I’m just going to note an observation I made while reading the book.

All we see of Cas that suggests her race is her last name (Leung), the name she bestows upon her newly-hatched sea monster (no, I won’t tell you what it is), and one instance when she hears someone in the distance speaking Cantonese and instinctively tries to translate it. Her physical appearance isn’t described beyond her black hair.

The presentation of the other characters’ races is equally (if not more) subtle: we’re shown a few quick physical descriptions of POC (people of color) characters; we hear one or maybe two POC use a few words in their native language; one POC character is explicitly described as a Pacific Islander.

As far as I (a white reader) could tell, none of these characters’ races informed anything about them as people. They may as well have been white; their diversity was merely aesthetics.

Yes, this book does take place in a kind of post-(semi-)apocalyptic future, and the countries as we know them today no longer exist. But the changing of maps and the evolution of new governments isn’t enough for me, personally, to shrug off the fact that these characters’ diversity seemed restricted to their skin and hair color (and sometimes language).

I’d love to read reviews of this book from POC bloggers; their opinion on the subject is more informed and important than mine. When I find them, I’ll be sure to link to them here. (UPDATE 2/23/17: Again, please go read Shenwei’s discussion on their blog!)

On a related note, the amazing Katherine @ Fabled Haven recently wrote a great article on the importance of Asian representation that’s more than just skin deep; I highly recommend you give it a read, if you haven’t already.

Overall

No, this book isn’t close to perfect, and no, it didn’t blow me away.

Yes, I’d recommend you read it, yes, I will be reading the sequel, and yes, I will be keeping a sharp eye on this author in the future. I mean, guys, come on, this book is about lesbians and sea monsters and pirates AND has a compelling theme. I can’t tell you how exciting this is in a debut.

Spoilery book critique

Spoiler Rating: Major spoilers, be warned

There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll limit myself to just a few important points.

The Suicide Question

So Reckoners—the massive, genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to protect seagoing vessels against pirates—are part of a large and exceedingly profitable industry. It’s also a tightly regulated and highly secretive one; its continuation (and, subsequently, a great deal of international trade) depends largely on keeping trade secrets out of pirate hands.

To ensure no pirates get any insider info on how Reckoners are created, trained, and directed in battle, all Reckoner trainers who are out in the field (uh, ocean) keep a suicide-pill on them 24/7; if the trainer is captured by pirates, it’s their bound duty to commit suicide so the pirates can’t torture that valuable information out of them.

The book opens with Cas preparing for her first official mission as a trainer: accompanying Reckoner Durga and a cruise vessel on what should be an easy-peasy pleasure jaunt. Until, of course, the pirates come screaming out of the horizon, torch everything, and capture Cas.

Here’s what I loved: Cas’s instinctive fear when her father (also a Reckoner trainer, and kind of her boss) handed her her suicide pill before she left on her mission; Cas’s queasiness at the thought of even having the pill on her; Cas’s horror and despair at the realization that she’ll have to use the pill; the hours she spends locked in a closet on the pirates’ ship, staring at the pill, willing herself to put it in her mouth, but unable to do so; her final, crushing admission that her life is less important than protecting her industry’s secrets; her decision to take the pill at last.

I’ve read a bunch of novels (YA and adult alike) that involve captured protagonists contemplating suicide, but I honestly can’t think of one that portrays that struggle as well as The Abyss Surrounds Us. Usually, the protagonist either isn’t given enough time to seriously think about suicide (“Maybe I should kill m—oh hey my fellow prisoners are working on an escape route! Awesome!”), or quickly dismisses the possibility and doesn’t think about it again (“I could kill myself, but that’s a terrible idea because the rebellion needs me!”).

But not Cas. Cas sits alone in the dark, holding the pill, breaking under her own devastation and anger and horror. And it’s great.

The Monster in All of Us

Cas’s character arc is absolutely my favorite type: the descent of a naive, idealistic, self-righteous character into a more hardened and morally grey one. Over the course of the story, her understanding of both her world and the individuals within it is shattered and reformed, and she emerges from the experience a very changed person.

Unfortunately, her character arc needed, like, an additional hundred pages or more to feel realistic. Her change (especially in the climax and resolution) was too abrupt and too complete; she basically does a 180, when I’d rather she did a, like, 95.

OLD CAS: “Pirates attack, loot, and destroy both cargo and pleasure ships, killing thousands of innocent people and stealing millions of dollars of goods, which wreaks havoc on economies across the globe! We need Reckoners to protect those innocent ships, and destroy the attacking pirate ships!”

NEW CAS: “When Reckoners destroy attacking pirate ships, they’re also killing, like, the innocent cook and children aboard those ships. WE ARE ALL MONSTERS. I AM NOW JUSTIFIED IN SIDING WITH THE PIRATES AND KILLING ANYONE I WANT IF THEY STAND IN THE WAY OF MY DESIRES. MURDERRRRR HECK YEAAAAAH.”

ME: [Sighs the longest sigh]

I appreciate what the book was trying to do with this arc, but I don’t think it was done successfully.

Skewed Romance Power Dynamics

Romance spoiler: Cas falls in love with a pirate named Swift, one of the handpicked “trainees” the captain is mentoring to become her eventual replacement. As a trainee, Swift has a pretty high rank on the ship. Cas, meanwhile, is a prisoner; more specifically, a prisoner whom the captain leaves under Swift’s guard. Cas is officially Swift’s responsibility (everything from clothing and feeding Cas, to protecting Cas from the crew, to ensuring Cas’s submission to the captain), and if Swift fails in her task in any way, her own life is forfeit.

So long as (a) Swift is Cas’s jailer and (b) Swift’s life depends her ability to make Cas submit to the captain, any relationship between them will have a seriously skewed power dynamic. They’re not equals, and cannot treat each other as equals.

There are plenty of stories out there involving couples in which one person has a great deal of power over the other, but I rarely see those couples actually acknowledge the existence of that gross inequality. Amazingly, Cas and Swift do acknowledge it, and (better still!) agree that it’s not a good idea to enter into a romantic relationship while they’re not equals.

However, they don’t actually discuss why their power imbalance makes for an untenable relationship. They just agree that yep, until they’re on equal footing, they shouldn’t date. I was literally (not literally) dying for them to take the conversation just one tiny step further, to make their reasoning absolutely clear to readers.

What the Hell, Captain?

Okay, Captain. What the hell is up with your motivation in this book.

You’re a powerful and cunning woman who carefully orchestrated the illegal acquisition of a Reckoner pup and all the equipment required to raise and train it to do your bidding. You did this with the sole purpose of using your new Reckoner to defend against other Reckoners while your ship is attacking its prey. And you specifically intended to reveal to the world that you have successfully raised and trained your own Reckoner, to terrify the law-abiding world with the knowledge that pirates can have Reckoners of their own.

And then, during the book’s rush into the climax, you lol and shrug, “Well, the world’s governments somehow noticed we have a Reckoner and are now sending ships out to attack us. This is entirely unexpected. No one could possibly have guessed that this would happen. Quick, Cas, you and Reckoner Bao go kill yourselves fighting the mini fleet that’s after us, and I’ll just deem this whole Pirate-Raised Reckoner experiment a minor whoops-a-daisy.”

Seriously? It didn’t occur to you that a pirate ship with a Reckoner would be attacked by governments wanting to shut that shit down? What is wrong with you.

(Probable answer: she needed to be stupid for the plot to work out this way. My response to that: don’t make characters uncharacteristically stupid for the sake of a plot point, aaaugh. Here’s hoping she actually did have a cunning and realistic motivation for her decision, and that we learn what that motivation is in the sequel. Please god.)

Book review in closing

I’m having a rough time rating this one, I won’t lie.  It has a lot of great things going on (so, maybe three and a half stars?), and I would recommend it to most readers, but it’s just not especially well written. Ugh, guys, I don’t know.

Let’s go with three stars, and hope the sequel gets more.

Love,

Liam


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