The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea under endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.
Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first easy journey of what she expects to be an easy career. But soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and learn that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard ticked of several boxes on my to-do-list book-wise. First of all, it is a YA science fiction novel, thereby not only expanding my YA reading, but my SF reading as well – which were two of the reading goals I’d set myself this year – but it also allowed me to acquaint myself with a writer I’d heard a lot of good things about. Several of the bloggers whose opinion I respect a lot love Howard’s Johannes Cabal series. So I was excited to start reading it. Barring some problems with the writing, my excitement was very much justified: Katya’s World was an engaging read.
To begin with, the world building is excellent. Russalka is an amazing environment and I loved the way Howard has shaped it. He has made the ocean world of Russalka more than just a globe with a water-logged surface and bad weather. He’s created an entire ecosystem underwater with layers of a different composition and consequently different properties and reactions to the Russalkan submarines. It’s also a bit of a nightmare vision as the idea of being in a submarine scares the bejeezus out of me. The idea of being surrounded by an element that’s likely to kill you if your vessel breaks just gives me hives. It’s similar to space travel in a sense. However, as it is less likely that I’ll ever find myself on a star ship than on a submarine, reading about space faring doesn’t unnerve me as much. I’ll hand it to Howard though, I didn’t feel that unease for long, as you forget you’re underwater until they actually have a problem or have to get out of their ship. I also liked the way Russalkan society is drawn; it’s a place where youngsters need to grow up fast and one where the original settlers of Russalka have divided into two: the regular Russalkin and the Yagizban, the ones who settled up top on floating settlements and who functioned as the go-between between Russalka and off-planet traders and diplomats.
The characters are well-drawn as well, especially Katya, Kane and Katya’s Uncle Lukyan. Katya is a fantastic heroine, though she strays frighteningly close to a case of ‘speshul snowflake-ism’, as the reader keeps getting reminded how intelligent she is and how cool she stays under pressure. However, Katya’s down-to-earth nature keeps her from getting annoying and over the top. In addition, she isn’t always able to save the day and that helps keeping her grounded as well. There are also hints at Katya’s past that suggest she isn’t such a good girl as she seems, so hopefully we’ll see more of that in the rest of the series, as this is the first book in the Russalka Chronicles. Kane reminded me of a cleaned-up Captain Jack Sparrow, with the same nonchalance and wilful evasiveness when it comes to the truth. But he had a bit of added tragedy in his history, which I hope we’ll find out more about as well. What I found very refreshing is that there is no romance in the novel, not a bit, not even a hint. I don’t mind romance sub-plots in the books I read, but it is good to see a book featuring a female lead that doesn’t include one. Instead the plot is made interesting by the mystery of the Leviathan and by the threat of war. Howard skilfully moves the conflict from off-world to on-world, yet manages to keep the Terran threat looming.
One area where I did have some problems was with some of the writing. The narrative is written in third person omniscient, so it’s able to jump heads in the middle of a scene. There were a few times however where the landing wasn’t completely smooth and felt a bit clunky and I had to go back to double check whose head I was in. Still, this might just be a case of personal taste in stylistics; while I don’t mind third person omniscient at all, I don’t like the narrator to intrude too much into the story, unless she consistently does so. At one point it seems as if the narrator is breaking the fourth wall to comment on Katya’s upbringing, which seemed very out of place in the scene.
The Russalkin were bred to shoulder responsibilities from an early age, but the urgency and importance of this one weighed upon Katya almost more than she could bear. It spoke much of her character and upbringing that she did not think of denying that responsibility for more than the briefest moment. (p. 229)
If the narrative at that point is a reflection of Katya’s inner monologue, it doesn’t make sense to talk of her upbringing that way, unless there is an intrusive narrator, which there hadn’t been up to that point. There were a few other stylistic niggles that I hadn’t expected from an experienced author like Howard. For example, at several points in the book we get exposition through Katya reminding herself of something. This and oft-repeated reminders of certain facts, such as Russalkin having to shoulder responsibility at a really young age and the fact that Katya is an exceedingly talented navigator and very intelligent, let the writing down for me.
Despite those reservations, however, I loved reading this book. I loved Katya and I even loved Kane. Katya’s development from the start to the finish of the novel – shown beautifully through how she explains her decision to stay and fight at the end of the book – is what make this story shine. I can’t wait to return to Russalka and to Katya and see where she goes from here. Katya’s World wasn’t a flawless book for me, but one I’ll gladly return to in the future. With an inventive setting featuring a strong female lead, Howard delivers an interesting SF story that is sure to draw in readers of all genders and ages.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.