It’s kind of obvious to most people interested in and embedded in pop culture that we are going through a massive cultural cramp right now as previously silenced and controlled voices find that they don’t actually have to be quiet to protect other people’s fragile sensibilities.
The folks who have decided that gaming and perverting the awards systems to fuel their egos; Gamergate, the few people left arguing that Jane Foster as Thor or female Ghostbusters destroys their childhoods and the Sad and Rabid Puppies are, in a nutshell, pathetic. But they, and their political counterparts, have done the rest of us a service. They serve as a sign post to a miserable, regressive position on the future. And by being those signposts, we can just as easily look in the opposite direction for inspiration. And so, I have been spending my days reading science fiction and fantasy again as I had not in many years. I’m using the puppies’ “Do Not Want” lists as my to-read list, and it’s been great.I don’t think I’ve been this happy reading science fiction and fantasy in decades. It’s not suitable for Okazu, but I finished Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor last week. If you have a YA reader of any age who liked Harry Potter or who wished not all magic users were white or male, have them start with Akata Witch. Brilliant stuff. I’m also reading Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which I’ll be reviewing here.
But today I want to talk about a different kind of monster than those who inhabits the Internets. Today we’re talking about giant monsters. Giant Sea Monsters.
Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us follows sea-beast trainer Cassandra Leung on her first day testing her skills in controlling the giant monster, the Reckoner, she has trained to fight pirates. Instead of taking down the pirates, Cassandra is captured and forced to train a Reckoner that will belong to the pirates themselves.
The dialogue and plot are pretty-high tension, as befits both Cas’ character and the situation. There’s violence which is wholly appropriate to the story. And there’s a sexual tension and relationship that builds up between Cas and her captor Swift, who is one of four trainees’ being groomed by their strict, strong and openly manipulative captain, Santa Elena. Swift wants to be captain someday and she’s probably going to be.
The two best things about the series are the way that pirates are portrayed as pretty much terrible people and the Reckoners. There’s alliances, rather than friendships among the pirates…even within a crew. And Santa Elena plays the trainees off of one another, so none of them know enough to take over individually and they don’t know enough to gang up on her and take over together. Skrutskie takes the kind of manipulation and maneuvering we all know from school and work and lays it out as the actual standard operating procedure of the ship. The beasts are portrayed as beasts. No warm fuzzy mammal-bonding here. These are giant sea-going creatures like squids and whales and turtles, trained to be ship-destroying machines. They are terrifying.
Edge of the Abyss begins a few weeks after Cas has been captured and has negotiated her place in the crew. It opens the world of the pirates up a little larger, and we can see the symbiosis between the pirates and the oceans and their prey, the ships from the land countries. The story swirls more tightly around Swift and Cas’ relationship and how it affects their work, the crew and the larger political relationship with the other pirates, and their relationship with the boats they attack. But mostly, it’s about Cas and Swift. Their relationship is tempestuous, to say the least.
The ending of Edge of the Abyss is abrupt, however, I felt it was the right choice to make. Stretching this book into a third story would have been forced and exhausting. By ending it the way she did, Skrutskie left room for a third book without needing cleanup of leftovers, and equally, she could leave this book where it is, wrapped up tightly without need for a sequel.
Most importantly, Skrutskie has given us a more modern, more realistic, and yet still futuristic idea of pirates and piracy that fails to glorify the lifestyle, even as it is embedded within it. And it gives us an image of women and men as pirates on more or less equal footing without explanation or handwave. And, for us, it provides a same-sex young female couple without coming of age or coming out clogging up the larger story.
Overall – 8
I found these two books to be enjoyable. Perfect for teen or older reader looking for a more realistic image of pirates and less historical fantasy. No Johnny Depps need apply, but Natalie Portman would make a damn fine Santa Elena.