Book Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Just last week I posted my 2018 Reading Resolutions, and here I am, one down already! In a stroke of luck my university library had The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie, which immediately drew me to it with promises of lesbian pirates raising sea monsters. On all three of those counts, I was not disappointed.

To get right into the plot, protagonist Cas was raised into the industry of Reckoner training: sea monsters that protect ships in a post-apocalyptic world where pirates target cargo crossing the NeoPacific Ccean. On her first solo mission, Cas’ reckoner is killed and she is taken hostage in order to raise a Reckoner pup which the pirate captain Santa Elena has mysteriously secured. Over the subsequent months, Cas must come to terms with the facts that she is falling for her watchdog/pirate-captain-in-training Swift, raising a true monster to kill those she once worked to protect, and perhaps becoming something of a monster herself.

Cas’ slow acceptance of what she creates–a man-eater–and what she becomes–a killer–is one of the best parts of this book. There are several moments in which Cas, astride Bao, her killer Reckoner, realizes she and her monster are the most dangerous things in the ocean…and she loves it. In a different book this would scare Cas into stronger moral (re)action, but in this case, she embraces it.

It’s not just that Cas comes to realize there’s a gray area between what she has always seen as good/evil. She does this. But there is also a distinct awareness on her part that piracy is nevertheless horrific, and what she is doing is horrific, and with that realization in mind she continues on instead of backing away. This, more than anything, is what sets this book apart in my eyes.

That said, she doesn’t try very hard to cling on to her previous worldview or life, and this disrupted the narrative for me a bit. Cas doesn’t seem to have any ties to her family and past life on land. They seem to have no bearing on her conscience beyond lip service. I would have been more convinced if there was a little more agonizing over the morality of her actions, or at least something in her background to explain the ease with which she accepts her about-face into piratic murder.

While this ambiguity did push me away from the story at some points, little details brought me back in. Descriptions of Cas training Bao were rich and immersive, perhaps the most so in the book. Cas’ and Swift’s relationship, which was shallo at first, quickly endeared me to it. The element I most appreciated and loved was their constant, mutual agreement of “equal footing”. Neither pursued a romantic relationship while Cas was still Swift’s captive charge, though both acknowledged romantic feelings. Fantastically done and touching.

In all, The Abyss Surrounds Us promised monsters, pirates, and romance, and delivered all three, along with an intriguing descent into gray morality. My eyes will be open for the sequel.

(P.S. from HQ: on my tumblr I am doing a giveaway of awesome swag I got at YALLFest, so if you’re interested check it out here!)


Mini Review: Treasure Island

In January I swore to read five books this year no matter what, and despite having read 57 books this year I somehow only managed to read four of the ones on the list…but I consider it a minor miracle I made it through Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was No. 2 on the list. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a real page-turner if you aren’t listening to the $2 audiobook version. Then it’s more like a sleep-inducer, leaving you constantly wondering, “oh, is another person speaking now, I didn’t notice because all the voices are identical” and “that’s the worst parrot impression I have ever heard.”

I tried not to let it impact my overall impression of the book, but that’s a hard thing to ask. That said, the book is foundational to all pirate adventure narratives today, and looking back with some distance from the narration I did enjoy it. Perhaps my favorite moment overall was when Jim’s mother wouldn’t hurry up and leave the inn because she was too honest to take more money than she was actually owed, so she took her sweet time counting out ancient coinage as pirates actively laid siege to their home.

I thought the point of view was much too distant and that it was kind of absurd that so many random people would just declare that Jim was living with them, or sailing to find treasure, and so on, without asking either Jim or his mother. Both of those things are products of the time it was written, which was in 1882. (Ultimately, I really only wanted to read the book so I could re-watch Treasure Planet cognizant of its narrative background.)

Overall thoughts: good book, but either read it or pay $25 for a quality audiobook

Review: The Ship of the Dead

So on October 3rd I was walking through the bookstore, minding my own business, checking out the new arrivals, when I see Magnus Chase number 3, The Ship of the Dead, staring at me. My whole body went into low-level shock. My hand started shaking. I walked numbly to the cashier with a copy cradled in my arms. I knew it came out in October, but I most certainly did NOT know it came out that very day, October 3rd.

It’s the last book in the Magnus Chase trilogy, which is interesting because it did not feel like a conclusion. For one thing, it’s much shorter than the first two bricks. For another, it lack the energy of the rest of the series. The first two books literally had me glued to my seat, non-stop excitement, and The Ship of the Dead just didn’t have that.

It’s a much more character-driven book than the others as well, but, oddly, it’s not Magnus‘ character. The stars of this book are the side characters: Mallory Keen, Thomas Jefferson Junior, Halfborn Gundeson, Samirah al-Abbas, and Alex Fierro. Magnus is more the vehicle through which we appreciate their development. Plot threads that I thought would play a critical role in the finale, such as Hearthstone’s final return to his brother’s grave or Samirah’s struggle to overcome her father’s influence, felt more like episodic moments.

That said, Alex and Magnus’ relationship had me almost in tears. Perfection. Riordan’s nearly-effortless inclusion of queer characters and relationships while still providing thoughtful and poignant analysis via Magnus is inspiring. For that matter, his handling of all the diversity in Magnus Chase provides a standard we should all aspire to. And he doesn’t beat around the bush about it. Where he could have shied away from highlighting the diversity in this series, he instead embraced it. He didn’t take the easy way out and include romantic moments only when Alex identifies as a girl. There is constant positive discussion of Islam and Samirah’s practice, casual inclusion of nonbinary characters, frequent description of specific ASL signs, lipreading, and interpretation, and pertinent discussion of discrimination throughout the book.

While the conclusion to Magnus Case may not have been as non-stop and downright exceptional as the first two, it was still a hell of a book, if nothing else than for the wonderfully characterized, effortlessly diverse cast, and Riordan’s unflinching engagement with those characters’ identities.

Review: Vassa in the Night

“What did I borrow from myself, and how will I ever get it back?”–Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night

I found this book at McKay’s Used Books, read it in two days, and foisted it onto my roommate the moment I got to school. She read it in one day–something I really should have done, because it does take fairly constant immersion/attention to hold on to all the strands of this story at once.

Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, is an bizarre, whimsical, and [some other word that won’t do it justice] retelling of the Russian folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful. Only it takes place in Brooklyn, and Baba Yaga owns a murderous 24-hour chain store, and it’s one of the weirdest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Any retelling of myths/folktales/fairy tales that haven’t been done a million times in the last few years immediately catch my eye, as does the striking cover. But more attention-grabbing that is the the surreal magical realism that Porter wields as if painting a watercolor.

Contained within this book is an eccentric cast of characters, even more eccentric events that will make you pause to ask if that really just happened, and a protagonist who must discover her ferocity, her history, and her missing piece, or be lost.

Review: The Head of the Saint


I have officially read 3 of the 5 books I swore to read in 2017.  I just finished The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli. I have been attempting to obtain this book for a year now, and I finally caved and bought it online. I discovered that during that year, while I ruminated on how much I wanted to read it, I unknowingly wrote the book in my head. I only realized I had this when I was confronted, within the first two chapters, that the book is nothing like I expected it to be–in an excellent way.

Our protagonist Samuel is on a mission to fulfill the last request of his dead mother–to go back to her hometown and find his father. He arrives there with less than the clothes on his back, and takes refuge in the head of a giant statue of Saint Anthony, where he discovers he can hear the prayers of women looking for love.

Acioli tells this tale in a roundabout, matter-of-fact sort of way that I haven’t run into before. The understated way the story is written masks the bizarre nature of the occurrences in this small town, so that the reader almost does not realize anything is out of the ordinary.

I enjoyed this book a lot, finishing it in an afternoon. I did feel that Samuel’s characterization was inconsistent, and all other characters were exceedingly flat. It felt at points like I was reading about a boy navigating a town of stock characters, static and predictable.

But that was not enough to put me off the novel, and I was effectively immersed in the Brazilian town of Candeia. One notable detail are the names of the characters: every one of them was charming and offbeat, especially Madeinusa, whose father mashed together the beautiful phrase ‘Made in USA’.

I’m also glad that I read the ‘about’ section, because it turns out that Acioli developed this book at a workshop led by Gabriel García Márquez, who handpicked her based on her story synopsis. WHAT.

Review: When the Moon Was Ours


When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, number one on my 2017 must-reads list, has been read! As I have been waiting to read this book since before it was released, I consider this a victory.

The crux of the story is the changing relationship between two strange inhabitants of a small town: Miel, a girl who was found in a water tower, and Sam, the boy who paints moons and hangs them everywhere. It’s a story of identity, love, fear, and family.

The book is incredibly beautiful. The prose is poetic, and the plot moves along gently. I was surprised and pleased at the fairy-tale like quality the story has the moment I opened the book. McLemore did a stellar job with the two transgender characters in the book, which I learned after I finished was due to her experience with her husband, who himself is trans. I’m glad she included this note at the end, because the tone of the book upon reflection took on the aura of a long, carefully crafted love letter.

Beauty and delicate nature aside, I did struggle at times with the passivity of Miel, the main character. Quiescent protagonists have never quite been my cup of tea: the ease with which Miel lets the people around her manipulate her life drove me quite frantic. In addition, at times the drowsiness of the plot left me unmotivated to continue until about half-way through, when the conflict truly started to pick up.

On the whole, however, the book is beautiful and poignant, with excellently represented characters. There was one scene involving a rose and a wrist that to this day, a month later, makes me cringe and hold my own wrist, and if that isn’t a mark of good writing, I don’t know what is. If you’re looking for diverse characters in every respect and beautiful, etherial writing, this book is for you.

Mini Review: Half Bad

So I finished the book Half Bad by Sally Green today. It was refreshing, because I haven’t had a book that’s nearly made me miss class in a while. I’d almost forgotten the panic/rage that accompanies skidding down the hallway a minute late to class while also filled with sheer blinding rage that my conscience won’t allow me to just skip and finish the damn book.

So it’s great. I read it in a day and a half, and only that slowly because of the aforementioned school. I picked up the last two books today. (Maybe not the best idea, considering it’s only Tuesday.) A seriously compelling writing style, despite the anguish that starts from pretty much page one, and intriguing characters (I dearly hope we meet Bob again along the way).

I’m off to read Half Wild now.