A young woman who has spent her life training genetically engineered sea creatures to fight piracy is taken as a prisoner on a pirate ship.
Points of Representation:
Main character of Chinese descent
LGBTQIA Characters w/ a romance subplot
I may have to film a proper video review once I’ve had some time to mull this over, but, as far as first impressions go…guys. Seriously. We need to talk about this book.
My gut responses to this book would be better illuminated by a touch of context. Broadly speaking, I don’t gravitate toward pirate stories, and that may have to do with the way I’ve interpreted the little exposure I’ve had to the genre. Between, “Muppet Treasure Island,” in my childhood, and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” in my adolescence, I have just a little trouble taking pirate narratives seriously.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved both of these films. “Curse of the Black Pearl,” in particular, is still one of my favorite things ever put to celluloid. But the greatest strength of each of these films is its comedic tone, and light-hearted character development. Combine these movies with the Disney ride, and that teeth-gridding earworm of a song from the “Veggie Tales” franchise (you know the one I mean. I dare not speak its name, or we’ll all be hearing it in our nightmares for the next month), and you have a pretty good sample of my exposure to pirate-inspired fiction. It shouldn’t be surprising , then, that I tend to think of pirate characters, and the narratives they populate, as more “farce” than “fierce.”
Then this thing came into my life. Released in February of 2016, “The Abyss Surrounds Us,” takes elements of both the “pirate fiction” and “environmental disaster dystopia” genres, and blends them with a Sci-Fi twist and a damn engaging cast to create an enthralling, emotionally satisfying ride. I’m a sucker for a book that I can disappear into, and characters that I can love and root for like I would my own flesh-and-blood friends, and Emily Skrutskie’s debut novel dishes out both of these things in one, deliciously generous pour. I would not call myself a fast reader, but this one had me in its hold and wouldn’t let me go. I had it in my hand as often as I could, and devoured it in about a week.
Although it took me a little while to warm up to the narrator, seventeen-year-old Cassandra Leung, I view the reasons for that as a feature, not a bug. I found Cassandra a little frustrating at first, because her upbringing left her with a very black-and-white understanding of the world. Early Cassandra is that delicate balance of “black-and-white thinker” and “self-righteous selective blindness,” that just makes me grind my teeth, in life as well as in fiction. But this is actually a good thing for her character. That kind of philosophical simplicity is a great starting point for change and growth. By the end of the novel, the more “morally complex,” members of the cast have effectively challenged Cassandra’s black-and-white world, setting her on a path to personal complexity that I am looking forward to seeing play out in the next volume.
…And speaking of those morally complex characters, let’s talk about them. Because sweet suffering sea monster, I love them so much. And hate them, in nearly equal measure. But “hate” in a way that makes me respect and root for them…clearly, these characters broke down my “black-and-white” world just as much as they did Cassadra’s.
Santa Elena, the Captain and Queen of the pirate vessel The Minnow, is a fascinating blend of traditional ideas of femininity, and a brutal, calculated, decidedly “unfeminine” ruthlessness. Her calm self-assurance supports an underlying hum of dread-based tension in just about every scene she inhabits. Her tendency to make a hairpin turn from reasonable business woman to, well, basically the hand of death, keeps both her crew and the reader on high alert. As one of her own protégés observes, “you’re the most dangerous thing on the ocean when you’re serving under her,” but the Sword of Damocles is always waiting, hovering just above your head.
Then, there’s Swift. To paraphrase Mr. Knightly in the 1996 film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” if I loved this character less, maybe I could talk about her more; or at least, more eloquently. But, as it is, Swift just…she just hurts me. She rips me up, I love her so much.
Swift is a young, efficient killer, who comes from a corner of the world in which serving on a Pirate Queen’s crew constitutes a legitimate career opportunity. She is smart, ambitious, and desperate; the kind of person who can dole out scars, when necessary, but, conversely, takes every scar she’s ever sustained “for someone else.” That statement ends up being far truer than the reader expects, as the narrative goes on…but, I won’t go into that now. For now, I will just say that Swift tares me up in a way that makes me want to kiss her and shake her in equal measure.
Speaking of things that hurt me: we need to talk about the romance element, here. Generally speaking, I am not especially invested in romance plots. They can be a nice breather in a tension-heavy main story, but, by and large, I can take them or leave them. The Abyss Surrounds Us, subverted my expectations on that front, too. Cassandra and Swift are both Lesbian young women who are comfortable in their sexuality. This is not a “coming out,” story, or a first attraction for either of them; but the slow burn attraction that builds between the two of them in the midst of the larger plot is just torturous (and I mean that in the best way possible). Let me put it this way: I never knew that a simple hug between two characters could be so damn rewarding.
So, put simply: The Abyss Surrounds Us grabbed hold of me from page one, and still hasn’t let me go. I look forward to re-reading this volume before the release of the sequel in…wait… 2017?!
Yep…that’s a problem. That’s definitely going to be a problem.