Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genre: science fiction
Pages: 273 & 296
Published: Feb 8 2016 & April 18 2017
Source: purchased & ARC from NetGalley
For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.
There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.
But Cas has fought pirates her entire life. And she's not about to stop.
With just these two monster-centric books, new author Emily Skrutskie has already made quite an impression. Though her novels are rather on the short side for science fiction at less than three hundred pages each, both contain so much plot and action and character development that not a page feels wasted or more needed. With its ambitious, clever imagination, complex and morally-grey characters, and the detailed world-building needed to back up a world balanced by seamonster fights, Skrutskie's ecologically-impaired version of the future is dynamic and original while still being a high-stakes and action-packed read.
Sea monsters and pirates and the battles between comprise the bulk of the series' action, plotting, and attention across the two books in this series. Through the main character of Cas, a headstrong teen girl first on the legit side of the monster vs pirates lines that define her world, and later on the lawless side, the book uses a first-person viewpoint to explore both sides of the central conflict. Cas's role over the course of both books is pivotal and evolves along the way, from the Reckoner trainer initially introduced in The Abyss Surrounds Us to the crewmember of the Minnow in The Edge of the Abyss. It's not an easy transition to handle and remain believable: from hostage to outsider to pirate, but Skrutskie's characterization has depth and takes the time to make Cas' changes feel organic for the character.
It's not only martial conflict that plagues Cas over the course of this duology. She has to contend with a barrage of emotional damage in a relatively short amount of time: distance from her family, living among a hostile crew, training a "little shit" of a Reckoner in stressful environs, a Captain who likes to play deadly mind games, and a love interest that may or may not betray her depending on the given day of the week. The romance between Cas and Swift is long-gestating and complicated. The seeds of their attraction are authentic and planted in the first novel, but thanks to a severe imbalance in power between the two, it is never cemented. By the events of the the second book, the girls are on more even terms but their relationship is now troubled by the actions of Swift in the past, her future as a pirate, and by Cas's own actions.
Outside of the characters and character interactions, the world-building of The Abyss Surrounds Us as a series remains a high point. There's cool tech invented for the world's necessities and in-depth thought given to crafting the eco-systems of the NeoPacific. Skrutskie's premise and imagination are strong and she uses scientific principles to create additional suspense and tension. The plotting reflects the author's knowledge, and while both books are mostly well-developed, they can also fall prey to tropes and conveniences on occasion. This is particularly noticeable in book two when Santa Elena needs other pirates to recognize the danger of a Hellbeast and hark! ONE APPEARS JUST THEN and attacking CIVILIANS! The series may go for the easy answer from time to time to tie plotlines or characters together, but its the exception rather than the rule.
The Abyss Surrounds Us was an excellent introduction to the world of Cas, Swift, Santa Elena and the Reckoners; short but impactful, and very memorable. The Edge of the Abyss continued those good traits and then builds a new, relevant plot to end the duology. The effortlessly diverse cast is worth noting and commending as well. This post-apocalyptic tale has f/f relationships, women of color in positions of power, Cas herself is of an unspecified Asian descent, aaaand The main human villain is a mediocre white failed businessman. Very much recommended.