I loved this book. Really. And if you give me a few minutes I’ll tell you why.
The novel is set on the world of Russulka, a distant sea-world colonised by the Russian people on behalf of Earth a couple of hundred years before the events of the novel (Howard neatly slides in the fact that colonisation by single racial/cultural groups had been found to reduce inner conflict and dissent – apparently Earth had a lot of practice at this). Without contact with their home planet for so long, the Russulkin naturally begin to think of themselves as independent, and, when their Terran (earth) ancestors appear once more attempt to exert this independence. They are met with slaughter – and thus begins a war which decimates the Russulkin population before the Terrans retreat. Ten years later, Russulka is mostly under the iron-fisted rule of the FMA, a policing organisation given much power during the war, and most of its population is young having had to grow up fast when so many adults had died during the war.
‘Scuse my French but: holy crap that is a lot of back story for a review. The world Howard creates is just that involved. I’ll just stick with the minimum of description of the actual plot before telling you why this is fantastic (as if the rich environment it is set in wouldn’t be enough to have any sci-fi fan excited).
Katya Kuriakova has just gotten her navigator’s card when the story opens. About to embark on her first official job, navigating a simple cargo run on her Uncle’s sub, Pushkin’s Baby, Katya’s mission undertakes a major detour as an FMA official commandeers the sub for prisoner transport. Soon, the simple cargo run has turned into a disaster involving torpedoes, pirates, and global conspiracies – but none of that compares to the danger which is lurking beneath the water, a monster left from the war which has now been woken up.
Refreshingly, unlike a lot of YA fiction, the teen cast of this novel is very small: just Katya and the somewhat minor character of Shukalev (sp?) the FMA officer who originally commandeers the Baby. A familiar trope in YA fiction is an excuse (sometimes very flimsy) for the absence of any adults who may be able to sort out the overriding problems. In Katya’s World the very presence of adults (ok, none of which appear to be older than 40 or so, in reference to the war) serves to highlight Katya’s strength and resourcefulness. The fact that these characters are (mostly) fully rounded and, in many cases, integral to the plot, definitely helps measures, and their reactions to Katya further the reader’s picture of her as a young adult in this harsh, changeable world.
Speaking of characters, Howard has pulled off something very interesting in this novel in making the reader unsure who to trust, who to side with. Allegiances shift, change, and are revealed from hiding many times over the course of the book – and the only thing the reader is really left sure of is the love and bond between Katya and her Uncle. Without giving too much away, the ending of the novel completely encapsulates this feeling of ‘distrust’ and I was left saying ‘yes, yes!’ because there were finally repercussions to a particular character’s actions – but it was also a bit of sucker-punch because as a reader I never saw it coming. Yay for breaking conventions.
As you’ve probably guessed from the involved paragraph I wrote trying to describe the world, Howard has created a truly immersive environment (no pun intended!) and a world which is very believable. The only part I had trouble with was picturing a world with no land at all. I think it is partly because most of the time is spent in the subs, and when talking about settlements I was forgetting they were underground caves with airlocks. Howard does an excellent job with technology as well, making this what I believe might be categorised as light-science fiction (the only kind I read) meaning that things are described and feel real, and it makes sense that they work, but there aren’t pages of actual science interrupting the action.
Oh! And what action! The novel is fast-paced and fun. Even the dialog and extrapolation scenes are dynamic and move so that there isn’t a pause in the action, merely a brief lull where the reader can catch their breath. The actual fight scenes (submarine/boat fights and fire-fights, not hand to hand) were quite well done, and I never lost track of what was going on. I like that Katya wasn’t immediately an expert fighter as well. Her strength is more in her quick thinking, and I appreciated Howard not making her into Wonder Woman (though she does get to kick a bit of arse, never fear) and thus retaining character integrity.
I also want to write a bunch about Howard’s approach to warfare, humanity, heritage and history but I really think I’d run the risk of writing a mini essay – also, of describing plot points in way too much detail. Just know that there are poignant and thought-provoking situations and themes scattered throughout the novel. These questions about war, and people, do not interrupt the pace of the novel, and indeed I only really thought about some of them after I’d finished reading, but they make the world very real.
This is one of those novels which produced in me that odd feeling where you want to race forward and keep reading, but at the same time you don’t want to run out of book so you have to make yourself put it down and save some more for later. It’s one of those novels I almost want to quiz the author about (particularly something which is implied could’ve happened differently without the impetuous actions of a character) and definitely one where I hope I’m remembering correctly is the first (entirely standalone) book in a trilogy.
I would recommend this book to just about anyone who enjoys a bit of sci-fi, a bit of military action, or even just a good adventure. It’s well up there with some of the best I’ve read in the last few years.
PS. It really is dramatic how much more focussed my reviews are when I have time to write them before months have passed.