Cas Leung trains genetically-engineered monsters to keep the rising seas safe. Kidnapped by a pirate queen to train a stolen monster and turn the tables, Cas must decide what she values most: the code she was raised to follow, or the lives of those she loves.
Given how much I like all the ingredients of this potent little mix, I feel I should love the end-product more. That said, I like it more in retrospect than I did while I was reading it, which probably means I’m going to revisit it and gobble up the sequels. So, err, I should probably accept I liked it more than it felt like I did, right?
My main problem is that this is a YA novel, which I somehow missed going in. And don’t get me wrong – it’s a good YA novel, but it doesn’t work equally well at a fully adult level. Ditching the inevitable first person present narrative would have helped; I don’t honestly understand why it’s so ubiquitous. Some of the personal development also didn’t quite sit right for me, feeling a little thin and convenient – but perhaps I’m being too demanding of our teenage heroine (let’s face it – Katniss is a tough act to follow).
On the flip side, it does an awful lot of things right. I was surprised how upset I was by the early death of Cas’s Reckoner, given how soon Durga exits stage left. Cas’s affection comes through strongly, as does her horrified realisation that allowing the dying Durga to defend their vessel from the pirates will end awfully badly for all involved. It’s a terrible situation, and Cas does the right thing – almost certainly destroying her own career in the process.
It took me most of the novel to realise why I never really warmed to Cas: mostly – terribly – because she doesn’t kill herself. Of course, that’s an awkward choice for your protagonist to make at the start of your book, and it takes an awful lot of training / brainwashing to make death seem like a better choice than capture. It’s far more believable that Cas hesitates and lives, not least because she can’t know what Santa Elena has in store for her. However, it unearthed an expectation of single-minded resolve that I didn’t realise I held so strongly.
But that’s okay, because we get pirates. Santa Elena had me at hello, and one of my regrets is how little page time she gets. But what pages! She strides on in an array of fabulous outfits (@helpful-mammal, you can laugh at me if you wish), is unashamedly of the Zamira Drakasha school of the right sort of wish fulfilment, and could teach Patty Hewes a few things about management and motivational techniques. In other words, she ticks all my boxes, and she makes Cas’s life hell. I cheered her on all the way.
Sidekick Swift is also pretty fabulous – from dandling other pirate girls on her knee to her inability to put her laundry away, she’s made up of incongruous details that don’t ever get in the way of being a ruthless pirate queen in training. Learning more about her softened her edges, but didn’t dent my enjoyment of her sometimes wild-eyed determination and her delight in swashbuckling stunts.
Santa Elena and Swift are far from the only women aboard – the Minnow is as egalitarian as you please (and it pleased me a great deal). This is a near future when anyone can do anything, and I loved that this played out on every level.
Being YA, romance is inevitable – I decided to run with it (because really? Ok, let’s just chalk it up to teenage hormones) and I very much liked how it developed. The acknowledgement of circumstances was clever and appreciated, mostly heading off mutterings about Stockholm Syndrome; if I didn’t quite believe that having a pirate’s life tied to her own would (initially) influence Cas’s choices more than saving her own skin, I mostly bought into it by the end. Mostly.
One thing’s for sure – it was an entertaining ride, and hugely cinematic. Both individual aspects (*cough* Santa Elena *cough* but also the Reckoners and the floating city) and the big set piece battles would translate magnificently to a big screen, which would also be more forgiving of areas where I feel it’s a wee bit lacking in depth.
My gut feeling on this one is 3.5 stars – as my new year’s resolution is no half measures, I’m afraid it gets rounded down rather than up. But I’ll definitely be back for the sequel.
The Abyss Surrounds Us will be published on February 8th in the UK.
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for a review.