REVIEW: Sometimes, Staring Into the “Abyss” Can Be Fun

Ever thought to yourself: “There really should be more books about found-family dynamics aboard post-apocalyptic pirate ships featuring queer romance”?

On the one hand, you might want to consider casting a wider net in general when it comes to reading choices.

On the other — oh boy, have I got a book for you.

The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie is set in the (sadly) all-too-possible future, where the seas have risen and swallowed up much of the current coastline. Our protagonist is Cassandra Leung, seventeen years old and just about to graduate her training with the Reckoners: creatures genetically engineered into massive, ocean-dwelling beasts. These Reckoners come in a variety of types, but they’re all bred to swim beside wealthy merchant or pleasure ships and defend both cargo and crew from pirates. As a newly-minted Guardian, Cas must travel with her personal Reckoner and use their bond to fight in tandem with the sea monster.

Except on her inaugural solo voyage, everything goes wrong. The Reckoner dies and Cas is captured by pirates, who offer a terrible trade: her continued life in exchange for the training of a stolen Reckoner pup, to serve as their weapon in any future battles.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a bit like a mash-up of Waterworld and Pacific Rim, with perhaps a sprinkling of Pokémon by way of Lovecraft when it comes to the Reckoner training sequences. But Abyss’s aesthetic errs on the gritty, taking a hard look at the effects of climate change, colonialism, and class structure. Truthfully, this doesn’t always work in the book’s favor, as that’s quite a mouthful to chew over in less than 300 pages of YA-level fiction. This is before we get to the characters and their relationships: Cas and her parents, Cas and her Reckoners, Cas and the pirate queen, the connections between the pirate crew, and of course Cas and Swift.

Swift is the pirate tasked with keeping Cas in line, and heir apparent to the pirate queen.  As the story progresses we discover Swift is a lot less sanguine about her place in the world than Cas first assumes, and their relationship becomes one of slow-growing trust and understanding. Personally I will live and die for a romance as complicated as this one — but again, there’s a serious question as to whether the book does it justice. With so much crammed into the narrative, it can often feel like Abyss is just dipping its toes, instead of taking the really satisfying deep dives these complex issues deserve.

Still, it’s hard to resist the sheer coolness factor of the book’s ideas and ambition. The battle sequences alone feel worth the cover price, as Skrutsie has the knack of describing action not only in exciting but interesting, original ways. (I understand an underlying theme of the book is to question the use of manmade monsters as living weapons. But also: I want one.) And while this reviewer hasn’t read it, there is a sequel that completes the series as a duology, The Edge of the Abyss, which may give Abyss’s more cramped aspects room to expand and breathe. Either way, if you missed The Abyss Surrounds Us the first time around, it’s not too late to pick up the futuristic pirates-vs-kaiju novel of your (incredibly specific) dreams.


Abyss Surrounds Us