I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie
Series: The Abyss Surrounds Us #1
Published by Flux on February 8 2016
Genres: Young adult, Fantasy
The nitty-gritty: A refreshingly original YA fantasy with pirates, sea monsters and deeply developed and complex relationships.
They can try to kill me all they want, but I’m the girl who stands on the backs of the beasts of the NeoPacific. The Minnow blazes from within, promising life and warmth and villainy, but out here I’m mighty.
I didn’t pay much attention to the story blurb for The Abyss Surrounds Us before I started reading, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a well thought-out and very original idea that delighted me to no end. There are plenty of pirate stories and plenty of sea monster stories out there, but I’ve never seen the two combined in quite this way before. Our heroine Cassandra Leung is a Reckoner trainer, and Reckoners are bioengineered sea monsters who are trained to bond with and protect ships from pirate attacks. Cool idea, right? Skrutskie takes this idea and runs with it, creating a believable world where the Reckoner breeding and training program is a vital part of the economy, a business whose secrets are closely guarded. That alone is enough to make a satisfying story, but the author puts her young protagonists in some very interesting situations and brings up moral questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. Add in a beautifully done relationship between Cas and a female pirate and you have one hell of a tale.
When the story opens, Cas is about to go on her first solo mission, her final test to becoming a full-fledged Reckoner trainer. She’s been studying for years under the tutelage of her parents, but it’s time to take the Reckoner she’s been training, a gigantic beast named Durga, on her maiden voyage alongside her bonded ship, the Nereid. Cas is excited to finally be on her own with Durga, but unfortunately, her excitement turns to horror when the Nereid is attacked by pirates, and Durga is brutally killed. Watching her beloved Reckoner die at the hands of pirates is bad enough, but then Cas is abducted and brought onto the pirate ship Minnow as a prisoner.
The captain of the ship, a cruel woman named Santa Elena, forces Cas to raise and train a Reckoner who will bond with the Minnow and protect it from the very people who would seek to destroy it—in other words, Cas’ family and friends. Locked up and forced to do as Santa Elena says, or risk not only her own life, but the life of a young crew member named Swift, Cas reluctantly begins training Bao, the Reckoner pup that Santa Elena acquired through dubious means. It doesn’t take long for Cas to realize that there’s no way back to her old life, and even though she hates Santa Elena and the rest of the crew, she’s beginning to understand and even like Swift, the girl whose life is tied to her own.
But as Bao becomes the vicious fighter that Santa Elena has dreamt about, the crew of the Minnow finds themselves under attack, and the lines between good and bad become forever blurred.
First a word of warning: The Abyss Surrounds Us has some extremely violent moments in it, so don’t let the young adult label fool you. Skrutskie’s pirates are bloodthirsty, especially toward each other, which makes the violence even more upsetting. (You’ll see what I mean when you read it!) So if you’re looking for a glamorous tale of the high seas, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a carefully crafted story with multifaceted characters who aren’t just black and white cookie-cutter good guys and bad guys. Both Swift and Cas surprised me throughout the story by questioning their own morals. Cas believes her job as a Reckoner trainer to be important, and she never questions the way she’s been brought up, until she ends up on the Minnow and the pirates force her to see things from their perspective. Sure, the Reckoners are trained to destroy pirate ships, but they’re saving innocent civilians in the process. Look at it from Swift’s eyes, and you’ll get a completely different view of it: Reckoners are killing machines, no matter who they’re killing. I love stories that bring up moral questions, and this one gives readers plenty of food for thought.
One of the biggest surprises in The Abyss Surrounds Us was the burgeoning romance between Cas and Swift. First of all, yay for diversity, because it’s a very well done romance between two female characters, but even better is the restraint that Skrutskie shows by allowing the romance to grow at a believable pace. There is a bit of Stockholm Syndrome going on, it’s true, since Cas is nothing more than a prisoner on the Minnow, but as we get to know the characters better, Swift turns out to have secrets that make her more human, and after that it isn’t such a stretch to believe these two could fall in love.
The Reckoners were the biggest draw for me, because who doesn’t love a good sea monster story? And although we do get some awesome ocean scenes with Cas and Bao, it just wasn’t enough for me. At under three hundred pages, this book did a good job covering all the bases, but I would have gladly read another fifty had there been more interaction with Durga and Bao. I loved the descriptions of the beasts that we do get—for example, Durga is bred from both snapping turtle and marine iguana DNA—but other than a few descriptions, I couldn’t quite get a clear picture of what they looked like.
Most of the characters were well fleshed out, especially Cas and Swift, but a few felt two-dimensional to me, and I would have loved more depth. Surprisingly, one of those characters was Santa Elena, the pirate queen. Yes, she’s cruel as hell, and I did love seeing a female character with that level meanness—but that’s all she was. There was some attempt to make her more sympathetic by giving her a son, but it felt tacked on to me, and that story line was never developed. I was fascinated by the other crew members as well, and even though Skrutskie doesn’t delve as deep into their personalities as she does with Swift, I see lots of potential for them in future books.
But aside from a couple of issues, I loved this story! It’s always nice to read something that isn’t a retread of the same old thing, and I applaud Emily Skrutskie for taking a risk on a very risky premise. The Abyss Surrounds Us is the start to an exciting series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.