The Abyss Surrounds Us is set sometime in the future. Genetically engineered sea monsters known as “Reckoners” were developed to protect larger ships from pirates, and Cassandra Leung is a Reckoner trainer anxiously embarking on her first solo mission with her favorite Reckoner, Durga. Unfortunately, things go very wrong, Durga is killed, and Cas ends up captured by Santa Elena, the captain of the Minnow, a pirate ship. She learns, to her horror, that the pirates have not only somehow gotten their hands on a Reckoner pup, they also expect her to train it to protect them. She reluctantly agrees, hoping that at some point she'll learn the identity of the traitor who supplied them with a Reckoner pup and related equipment, and that she'll live long enough to pass that information on.
When I heard that this was f/f YA sci-fi with pirates and giant sea monsters, I knew I wanted to read it. I'd have bought the e-book immediately, except it was expensive and had DRM. I considered buying a paper copy, but, after taking a closer look and realizing that the book was written in first person present tense, I opted for interlibrary loan instead.
Let's talk about that first person present tense POV. An author really has to know what they're doing and be telling the right kind of story for it to work. The only decent book I can think of right now that used first person present tense was Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Granted, I didn't love it, but my issues with it had very little to do with Collins' POV or tense choice.
First person present tense was a mistake for The Abyss Surrounds Us. It was why, in an effort to give readers some of the history of this world that a 17-year-old like Cas wouldn't normally know or care about, a random elderly man walked up to Cas to reminisce about the past while she stood there and waited him out. The man was a throwaway character who never showed up again, existing only to give readers that bit of world-building info. First person present tense also gave readers sentences like this:
“'Cas, you wanna explain who that was?' Swift asks, and I notice the harsh edge she's forced into her tone.” (203)Cas didn't actually know that this “harsh edge” was forced – she was guessing, based on recent events. But the author needed to signal to readers that Swift was no longer potentially as awful as she seemed, and there were very few ways she could do that with first person present tense.
First person present tense might have also contributed to Cas feeling like such a flat and bland character, and to Santa Elena just being confusing, period. I felt like I barely learned anything about Cas – what her life had been like when she wasn't training Reckoners, what her relationship with her family members was like, anything. Santa Elena made no sense. On the one hand, the Reckoner pup she'd acquired was a precious resource that could give her a lot of power and prestige. On the other hand, she treated Cas and the Reckoner like they were both expendable and like she'd enjoy hurting or killing one or both of them. Skrutskie tried to humanize her by having her briefly chat with Cas about motherhood (she took over the Minnow while her son was still a baby, and she viewed Cas's efforts to raise her Reckoner as being similar to a mother raising a child), but then kept giving readers scenes in which she behaved like a vicious despot. I'm amazed she made it through the entire book without inspiring a mutiny.
Anyway, I was willing to put up with the first person present tense POV because I absolutely loved the Reckoners aspect, and I still think they're the best thing about this book. Although Cas resented Bao, the turtle-based Reckoner she was forced to train, I loved their training scenes. Had the story gone the way I'd have preferred, Cas would have slowly become more and more emotionally attached to Bao. Her growing affection for him would have mixed uncomfortably with her grief for Durga, who was also a turtle-based Reckoner, and her recognition of the fact that training him to protect the Minnow and its crew meant that one day he'd be killing Reckoners who meant as much to their trainers as Durga had meant to her. Because Bao had imprinted upon the Minnow (Reckoners imprint upon particular ships as part of their training), Cas would also find herself facing a decision to either stay with the pirates or to escape and abandon Bao.
Sadly, the book I wanted was not the book I got. Cas spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to train Bao just well enough to keep Santa Elena from killing her, but not so well that he could truly be used as a weapon. She wanted to figure out Santa Elena's Reckoner source and then escape, but things became more complicated when she began to fall for Swift, the young pirate who'd been assigned to keep an eye on her.
The relationship between Cas and Swift was very subtle, at first. In fact, if I hadn't known this was f/f YA, I'd probably have figured that certain early scenes were laying the groundwork for the two of them to eventually become friends. Cas's attraction to Swift became more apparent later on, but she fought it because 1) she was still Santa Elena's captive and 2) Swift had made it clear several times that her primary loyalty was to Santa Elena.
Then, at the worst possible moment, Cas and Swift's relationship suddenly deepened. In the space of less than a day, Cas went from wanting to escape the Minnow at the first opportunity to wanting to stay for Swift's sake. The speed of it all threw me. It all became clear when Cas was given the opportunity to escape and chose not to. The reason for the sudden deepening of Cas's feelings for Swift was because Skrutskie needed to give her a believable reason to continue to stay with the pirates and do things she might not have otherwise agreed to do. Except it happened so quickly that it wasn't believable. It was like watching a movie and catching glimpses of the lighting equipment or the wires used during a fight scene. The authorial puppet strings moving Cas and Swift into place were so obvious that it was painful.
Things got worse from that point on. Without being too spoilery, in the final few pages Skrutskie jettisoned or stomped on those aspects of the story that might have left me wanting to read the book's sequel despite my issues with her writing. It's possible that she could find a way to fix what she did or undo some of it, but I don't know that I have the trust or patience necessary to find out.
All in all, I loved the Reckoners, but that was about it. The execution wasn't great, the romance was a tool to keep the plot going in the direction Skrutskie wanted, and the world-building had holes you could drive a truck through. I'm still wondering why the Reckoners, who were expensive to breed and train and who even necessitated the creation of a genetically engineered food source so they wouldn't completely clean out the ocean just trying to keep themselves fed, were considered the best way to combat the pirate problem. I'm also still wondering about the book's brief mention of terrestrial Reckoners. If Reckoners were meant to fight pirates, then why would terrestrial Reckoners be necessary?
My read-alikes list isn't great but hopefully contains at least one or two things of interest.
- Mayday: A Kaiju Thriller (e-book) by Chris Strange - This might be a good one for those who found the giant sea monster aspect of Skrutskie's book interesting, although it isn't YA. I haven't read it yet, although it's in my e-TBR. I recall the excerpt mentioning several different kinds of kaiju, which are kept in check by mind control devices.
- Dragon's Blood (book) by Jane Yolen - I've seen this book tagged as YA, although some reviews indicate that it might be intended for a younger audience. I think I've read it, but I've long since forgotten most of it. It's about a slave boy who secretly raises a dragon so that he can enter it into pit fights and hopefully win his freedom.
- Airborn (book) by Kenneth Oppel - I know I've read this, but I can't remember much about it. I do know that it's YA and has pirates and fantastic beasts, although it involves airships rather than real ships.
- Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Another one that only has a little in common with Skrutskie's book. It has a female protagonist and deals with survival issues (in this case, against the elements rather than pirates) and raising and training creatures (in this case, tiny dragons).
- Huntress (book) by Malinda Lo - Again, this one doesn't have much in common with Skrutskie's book. However, readers who'd just like a f/f YA adventure book (in this case, fantasy) might want to give it a try. I've written about it.