Arts Reviews

Sea Monsters, Pirates, Girls: A review of “The Abyss Surrounds Us”

By Charlie Robielos, Pearl Staff

Sea monsters. Pirates. Girls.

If you’re not sold on this book yet, you should reconsider your priorities.

Emily Strutskie published her debut novel, The Abyss Surrounds Us, in 2016 while still attending Cornell University. If not for the spicy plot or just to support stories from diverse perspectives, you should at the very least consider supporting a fellow broke college student trying to pay those kinds of bills by buying her book. It’s like if someone took Pacific Rim, Black Sails, and a whole semester of Women’s Studies and spliced them Jurassic Park-style into a duology. In any case, I know you just want to hear about the sea-monsters and girls—like me when I first came across this book—so I’ll just dive right in.

The book’s main character, Cassandra Leung or Cas for short, aims to follow her parents’ footsteps and train genetically-engineered sea monsters called Reckoners. These absolute units keep ships safe within pirate-infested waters, especially since big governments with international jurisdictions are so twenty-first century. Anyway, Cas sails off on her first mission: she and her beast baby must escort a cruise ship. But egads! Pirates attack and murk the monster. Cas is then captured by the fearsome pirate queen, Santa Elena, who forces her to raise a contraband Reckoner to work on the pirates’ side! To ensure Cas’s obedience Santa Elena assigns her a pirate guard named Swift. If you’re into Bad Boys but like, not boys, you’re gonna swiftly fall in love for sure. Aloof and pragmatic, Swift trains under the pirate queen with other competitors to inherit the fleet. She must learn to balance her responsibilities while helping Cas get on board with piracy, but some of the trainees may have other plans. In close quarters, Cas and Swift have no other option but to trust each other if they want to survive this ordeal. But even as they grow closer, Cas still tries to figure out a way to get back home in one piece while protecting the dangerous knowledge of Reckoner training from falling into the wrong hands.

So, to get the checklist out of the way: this book provides amazing representation across the board. Yes, this book is girls in all our beast-taming, pirate-captaining glory. Hallelujah! In terms of racial diversity: women of color stand proudly at the helm of the narrative: Cas is Chinese-Californian (there’s no America in this book!). It’s rare enough to find an Asian woman in any kind of leading role, but wait—there’s more! Though Santa Elena is racially ambiguous, other people of different ethnicities also feature prominently within the story, reflecting the absence of borders on the high seas and ideally in real life. In terms of the representation for women in general: all the women exhibit strengths in several different ways—all far superior to the standard Strong Woman Who Looks Good Fighting in Heels and Loosely Curled Hair cliché (looks at Captain Marvel). Some find strength in ruthless leadership, others in strategy, sometimes in vulnerability, and other girls are just really good at slamming bodies.

If your stress about the future state of the planet is rising as fast as the sea levels, you’ll really take the bait on this one. The geopolitical balance of the world makes the stakes in this game; the Reckoners can wreak havoc on the ocean’s ecosystem and on political sovereignty if left unregulated. The story comments on the recklessness of our abuse of power and how much people are willing to destroy to attain it. Speaking of power, however, the relationship between Cas and Swift is perhaps one of the healthiest, most interesting developments of enemies-to-reluctant-allies-to-lovers I have ever seen in my life. The book regularly addresses the power dynamic between Cas, a captive, and Swift, one of her captors, and overcoming this central conflict takes priority over their budding romance. And though that romance is compelling in its own right, it perfectly coincides with the action-packed plot and the precarious situation that the cast finds themselves in. Overall, this book offers a refreshing plot with dynamic characters providing unique perspectives which are criminally unexplored in every aspect of storytelling.

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