The Abyss Surrounds Us, Book 2; published in 2017; 281 pages. ★★★★☆
Every burst of fireworks feels somewhere between a prelude to war and a statement of purpose. We’re here. We’re alive. And we’re going to light you up.
Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.
But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?
Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?
If I’m honest with myself, I think The Edge of the Abyss is my second-most-anticipated release of 2017, following only Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. The Abyss Surrounds Us was an absolute delight, refreshing in its originality, complexity, and casual diversity – at once a rollicking science fiction story, an exploration of moral questions, and a confident assertion that the future holds a place for all people. It also ended on a frankly vicious cliffhanger, and I’ve been longing for its sequel ever since. And after all that, it did live up to my expectations… for the most part. I want more. I want so much more, some of it that I wish had been in this book and some of which I’m still hoping for. That is, in the end, a testament to the strength of the world, story, and characters that Skrutskie has created – but it does mean that I feel The Abyss Surrounds Us to be the stronger book. Cliffhanger aside, it felt like the more complete of the two.
The most significant difference between the two parts of this duology is the scale of each book’s narrative. TASU was a fast-paced, closely focused story, and it was packed neatly into 273 pages. TEOTA is a scant eight pages longer, but covers much more dramatic events and character developments happening over a longer stretch of time. While this sidesteps ‘second book syndrome’, this is one case where I actually would have enjoyed a slightly slower bridge between the first book and the series resolution. The conflict of TEOTA centers around a risk of ecological collapse, and to have it all come to a head rapidly felt a little too simple. Similarly, the conflicts between Cas, Swift, and Santa Elena were handled well (Skrutskie excels at complex characterization) but often just felt… too fast. I wanted more halting, gradual, painstaking reconciliation; more creeping dread as the effects of the Hellbeasts were revealed; more lingering doubt before questions were resolved.
I want to stress, though, that all this is not to say that TEOTA wasn’t excellent. It was! I particularly loved Cas’s character development, especially as a continuation of her ethical struggles in TASU. She’s been unmoored from everything she knew and believed, and she’s wrestling to define her own sense of right and wrong in the aftermath. There’s an element to it that, as a 20-something millennial, I related to deeply: that feeling of being battered from all sides by other people’s ideas of what your future should be, and being torn between responsibility to others and the idea of ‘living your truth’.
The relationship between Cas and Swift was also beautifully handled. Skrutskie even addressed how little they know about each other, which was a choice I hadn’t expected, but I fully appreciated. In TASU, their fire-forged bond felt natural; here, they have to work to rebuild that mutual trust, and it just makes them that much better. The physical chemistry also went up several notches, now that they’re on equal footing, and it intertwined with their relationship development beautifully.
We’ve never kissed like this before, never slow, never delicate. It’s so strange that I almost reject it, almost tighten my hands on her shoulders and yank her down into a real kiss. Swift and I are supposed to be all clash and burn, but maybe we can be something more than that, and it’s that thought that stills me as I kiss her back, soft and sweet and tender.
When their relationship becomes sexual, it’s handled extraordinarily well, avoiding a lot of the pitfalls of many YA romances. The scene is written discreetly, so it doesn’t feel exhibitionist, and yet Skrutskie still establishes that both girls are sexually experienced, and that they communicate and consent clearly to everything. It’s healthy and sweet and yet still fraught, and I’d love to see more portrayal of sex like this, especially in books targeted at teens.
Swift is – oh, Swift. She’s messy and savage and full of longing and love and fierce protectiveness and I adore her. I love the way she challenges Cas’s assumptions – about her, about the Flotilla, about the pirates and the whole system of the NeoPacific. I love that she lays claim to what she is –
“I’m a fucking pirate. I’m a fucking monster. And some day, I want to be a motherfucking queen.”
– but that she is also the one who speaks of softer feelings, the one who says “I love you” first. (And what a scene that was: tangled, painful, and honest.) Swift is full of extremes, and yet somehow they all balance out into the exact right person for the crisis at hand. It’s marvelous.
The central conflict is… something I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, I love that this is a story about the importance of ecological balance, and it sure doesn’t hurt that we got to see a greater diversity of Reckoners, because that’s just plain cool. On the other hand, the Hellbeasts aren’t at fault for the devastation they’re precipitating. They were stolen, abused, and abandoned; at one point, Cas even notes that one of them is visibly scared. It’s hard for me to accept that defeating them is the right resolution, because they’re victims themselves. That said, the end of the book offers a middle-ground sort of resolution, so I can cling to some hope that there’s a better solution to be discovered, with a little more time.
I don’t know if Emily Skrutskie has any intention of returning to this series, but I sincerely hope she will, even if only in the form of short stories. There’s just so much more I’d like to see – scenes from what happens after; Swift’s perspective on past or future events; what other parts of this Post-Schism world look like; maybe even the Schism itself or the creation of the first Reckoners, a la Pacific Rim’s graphic novel. And even if she doesn’t, I’ll follow her to whatever worlds she creates next, and gladly so.