Notes on Diversity:
We are A+ on the diversity front here, folks.
The lead, Cas Leung, is a woman of color! And so is her pirate adversary Santa Elena! A number of other characters of color are scattered throughout, as well, yay! Which also highlights that this is a book about women driven by women. Men are around, but the plot revolves around and is pushed forward by the decisions of agentic women.
CAS IS ALSO A LESBIAN. Yeah, yeah!
Another major character is from a decidedly impoverished background, which forced Cas into important re-evaluations of both that character and piracy as a whole. I was glad to see an inclusion of class as a factor here, and to see it included in such a personalized way.
At least a couple of the minor characters are dealing with…something. There are hints towards mental illness or disability, but it’s not fleshed out here at all. There is supposed to be a sequel, so there’s a chance we may delve into these characters’ backstories more there.
Emily Skrutskie’s THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is a slight book that packs a punch. Do you want sea monsters? Check. Pirates? Check. An impossible queer romance you can’t help but root for? Check.
Cas Leung was raised among Reckoners: giant beasts genetically engineered to protect ships from pirates out on the NeoPacific. Her mother runs a lab; her father is a Reckoner trainer. The business is serious business–the trade secrets so well-guarded that on Cas’s first solo jaunt as a trainer herself, she’s given a suicide pill and told to take it rather than get taken alive by pirates. Not that she’ll run into trouble.
But of course she does run into trouble.
And of course she doesn’t take the pill. And so our story begins. Cas winds up a hostage on The Minnow, at the mercy of the pirate queen Santa Elena, who has somehow procured a Reckoner pup. Santa Elena ties Cas’s fate to Swift, one of the handful of her chosen to battle it out as Santa Elena’s heir. If Cas fails, they both die. If Cas succeed, Swift inches closer to becoming captain herself.
What follows is a flurry of plot: Cas has to birth, raise, and train the Reckoner pup, which she names Bao. She enters an uneasy dance with Swift. They keep saving each other’s lives, but why? There is a weird trust there, but is it really trust? And the more Cas learns about the pirates–these people she’s been taught from birth not to think of people at all, to consider instead statistics, counts of death–the cloudier her moral compass becomes.
As an evolving narrator, Cas is wonderfully drawn. One thing I absolutely loved about this book was that she shows such substantial growth over the course of the book and absolutely none of it has to do with the fact that she’s queer. There is no coming out narrative here.* There is no coming-to-terms with that part of herself. If anything, she must come to terms with the fact that she’s fallen for a pirate (not that the pirate’s a girl).
What Cas grapples with instead is a sharpening of her own ethics. What purpose should the Reckoners serve? Are the pirates truly the blight she’s been told her whole life? She comes to think one thing, but then events on the ship will push her another way. She realizes how much she’s been insulated from the grand complexities of life, how much her privileges allowed her to reduce those complexities to neat binaries for her own comfort. This is a book that asks hard questions and does not flinch from the gritty truths it stirs up.
Swift, too, is wonderfully drawn. She is a study in disassociation, in survival. In compartmentalization. She resonated hard with me because I’ve been there, carving off bits of yourself to hand over in order to do what you have to to get the job done. By the end of the book she comes together from her disparate parts into a fully fledged person just in time to break your heart.
The big failing of THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US is that it’s so fleeting. Basically everyone besides Cas and Swift are sketches. Santa Elena has more depth than most of the other characters, but even she is still a sketch–Bao, the turtle-like sea monster has more depth than she does. The worldbuilding is strong, and the relationship between Cas and Swift is beautifully rendered**, but the ciphers that were the other characters nagged at me. I would have liked the plot to slow down just a hair, just long enough to drag other characters into the plot and flesh them out. Hopefully we’ll see more elaboration of the secondary characters in the sequel.
*This is not, in any way, to knock coming-out narratives. Ariah is one, after all. They are important! They are validating! It’s just that they aren’t the only narratives that queer people have, and it’s refreshing to see another one thrown in the mix.
**I especially loved the acknowledgment of the power imbalance between Cas (the hostage) and Swift (the captor). That the coercive element of their relationship was brought to light, named, and recognized.
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