by Emily Skrutskie
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 giant, 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. 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 and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.
Lesbians, pirates and sea monsters - how could I say no to this novel?
Set in a future where the United States are no longer united and so much of what happens in the world is ruled by what happens on the sea, The Abyss Surrounds Us follows reckoner trainer Cassandra Leung on her first job as a fully-fledged trainer. In this future piracy has become a real problem again, so families like Cassandra's breed and train reckoners: sea monsters.
The reckoners come in various breeds and imprint on ships, such as cruiser ships, and accompany them on voyages to protect them from pirates should any kind of attack occur. Reckoner training is all Cassandra has ever wanted to do, it's what she's been raised to do, and at the beginning of the novel she's finally ready to go on her first solo mission. And it's a disaster. Her reckoner is killed and Cas is taken hostage by the vicious pirate queen Santa Elena, who has somehow got her hands on a reckoner pup of her own, to even the playing field on the seven seas, and she wants Cas to train it to attack the very people Cas has spent her entire life training to protect.
This is one of those books that got better as I was reading it. This is something we hope happens with most books, but with this book in particular I started it a little unsure that I would like it while desperately hoping that I would because we need more leading f/f romances in SFF. Initially Cas seemed to get over being kidnapped a lot quicker than I thought she would - we don't learn that much about her individual family members, or even much about her family as a whole - and Santa Elena wasn't quite the fearsome villain I was expecting her to be at the beginning of the novel.
Soon enough, though, the novel evened out into a fun, fast-paced and at times a rather sinister read. Cas adapts to life aboard Santa Elena's ship rather quickly because she needs to adapt to survive, and her relationship with the pirate queen was an interesting one; there's a begrudging respect there between the two of them that makes the scenes they share tense but intriguing. Even Santa Elena herself went from the one-dimensional villain I was initially afraid she would be to a fleshed out and incredibly compelling character. In a way she evolved as a villain the more Cas got to know her, helping Cas to realise that while she's been raised to believe her family are doing the right thing they still train their sea monsters to mount vicious attacks on many people who've turned to piracy because it's their only option - and if this society has forced them into piracy, is it really moral at all to punish them for it?
By far my favourite character, though, was Cas's love interest Swift. Again she was another character I wasn't sure I was going to get along with at first, but I adored that Skrutskie played around with the typical YA male love interest - the brooding bad boy with a secret heart of gold - and translated it into a woman. Swift and Cas both misunderstand one another, they both have pre-conceived prejudices about each other because of their upbringings, but there's genuine growth in their relationship. What I loved most, though, was how healthy their relationship was considering Cas is a captive and Swift is one of her captors. Cas is adamant (and rightly so) that however she might feel about Swift, while she's a captive on Santa Elena's ship the two of them can never be on equal footing, and they can't pursue a romantic relationship when they're not on equal footing. I loved Cas's insistence on this matter as well Swift's complete understanding.
It was also refreshing to read a story about two LGBT+ girls whose story didn't revolve around them being LGBT+. Those stories are still relevant and they're still stories I love to read, but it was a real joy to read a book about two girls who like girls and nobody thinks anything of it - it's treated just like any other relationship, because it is. Minus the kidnapping and the piracy the sea monsters...
The future Skrutskie has imagined is a brutal but undoubtedly fun one. It's impossible not to feel like you're off on an adventure when you're reading a story about pirates, and her worldbuilding is excellent. So much of the book focuses on Cas training Santa Elena's reckoner pup - another favourite character, he's adorable and Skrutskie writes animals so well - and what goes into training a creature like that for these pirate-infested waters, and I enjoyed learning about what Cas's job entailed.
So if you're in the mood for a pirate book, and even if you're not, I recommend picking this one up! I had a great time reading it, and I'd love to see it being widely read by YA and sci-fi fans alike - especially as f/f SFF simply isn't talked about enough.