The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything: a phenomenal and diverse main character, sea monsters, pirates, and a moral dilemma. Pure catnip for me.
Cassandra has been training to be a Reckoner, a sea monster trainer, her whole life. Her entire family has been devoting their lives to training these sea monsters to protect ships as they sail across the pirate infested seas. However, all does not go according to plan as Cassandra’s first training mission ends in a destroyed boat, a dead companion, and being imprisoned on a pirate ship. If things couldn’t get any worse, it turns out they most definitely can. Cassandra is being held in order to be forced to train a Recokner pup for the pirates so they can wreak havoc on all crafts in the sea. She faces a choice: betray everything she’s ever known for the sake of her enemies or result in her death, an unlikely pirate alley, and her Reckoner pup.
The first thing that hits you in this book is the incredibly detailed system of the Reckoners and the sea monsters (and the environment). It is fascinating to hear and witness the training of the pup as well as explore the relationship between ‘monster’ and trainer. In fact, this aspect of the book served as an instant hook. Skrutskie delves us into a complicated and rich world of sea life trainers in a world filled with disastrous consequences.
In some aspects of the plot, you could see where it was going from miles away, but that never detracted from the evolution of the story. Even though we could predict a few of the surprises, they nevertheless unfolded on their own timeline. Overall the plot was cunning and surprising, presenting new challenges and decisions throughout. At the same time, at the end I was a bit confused about the whole direction of the ‘grander’ plot arc that I hope becomes resolved in the sequel.
Now my other favorite aspect were the characters. I’m not just talking about the main ones; Swift, the pirate in charge of Cassandra’s captivity, and Casandra, but also the pirate Captain, Santa Elana, and her crewmates. Starting from the top, Captain Santa Elana is a delicious and dangerous combination: a single mother who defied all expectations and clawed her way to the crown. Even more intriguing are the situations where Santa Elena and Casandra are together, whether in opposition or a fragile alliance. Her crewmates, especially Code, are puzzles of their own, around the same age as Casandra (late teen), and thrown into a volatile powder keg of animosity, ambition, and cut-throat strategies to be named the new captain.
Casandra and Swift have intriguing histories that further complicate their actions. Cassandra’s Chinese-American culture comes out subtly and she faces a messy tangle of strings: loyalty, guilt, pride, and fear. In the end, her character merely takes on an added layer of intricacy resulting in eager anticipation for the sequel. But I was most impressed by Swift’s story. I take it for granted that Casandra needs to have moral dilemmas, a learning experience, and complexity. However, Swift’s level of characterization surprised and impressed me. By the end, I was almost rooting more for Swift because of her family situation, balance between her public and private face, and her feelings on their friendship. She is intelligent, relatable, and has a difficult morality, that does not merely ignore her own blame.
The Themes I Loved: Training and Motherhood
In terms of parts of the book I liked most, the moral situation Casandra is forced to ponder as she begins to associate the pirate ship as home is fantastically written. It brings up so many topics I want to talk about but I’ll focus on two: motherhood/training, and the ethics of pirates. Casandra is forced to ‘mother’ and train this Reckoner pup. When we are responsible for another life form, we are taking on the responsibility for them, as Santa Elena makes perfectly clear. And one has to think about the connection between motherhood and the ‘monsters’ which both of these women are producing.
For the majority, the emphasis is on how we train this sea creature to respond to our commands and to watch its instincts take over. I could not help but see the parallel between Santa Elena and her pirate crew. Santa Elena also ‘trains’ her crew to be ruthless, violent, and cultivates an ambition that requires a body count. The best example of this is when the comparison is played out before our eyes as Santa Elena uses her Reckoner pup in one of these training sessions. At the end, I wonder who the trainer, which are the monsters is. As readers we witness the responsibility we must all take for our own monsters.
Ethics and Pirates?!
Secondly, I would like to focus on the ethical differences between the Reckoner culture and the Pirates. This Us vs. Them mentality is one as old as time. I have even recently read many books that have dealt with it, but The Abyss Surrounds Us remains something special. Both sides view each other as the enemies, the blood thirsty killers, and those who annihilate their enemies. They are raised to think that way, trained to kill and dehumanize their foes. It is in this system that we need people who see beyond the generalizations, that look behind the masks to see the individuals as who they are. Only then can we look critically at the system and have a chance of ever changing the bloodshed.
The Abyss Surrounds Us is a wonderfully diverse book that is absolutely worthwhile to read for its moral explorations, vivid sea companions, and multifaceted characters. It doesn’t hurt that there are pirates, corruption, and battles as well. You’ll enjoy the romance, the grey zones of ethics, and the relationship between Casandra and her Reckoner pup as you devour this book.
What ‘monster’ would you love to train?
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