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!)


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.