The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.
Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career.
There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however; soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.
-cover and synopsis courtesy goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: This cover reminds me quite a bit of the cover for Marie Lu’s Legend. I liked the design there and I like it even more here–totally appropriate for a military SF tale.
Planetary Class: Military SF. In many ways, it reminds me of the social SF of the 70s which I so loved–but heavier on the battles and lighter on the romance.
Mohs Rating: I’d weigh this as a 4 on the Mohs scale. The science is fairly hard indeed–but this is still set on an extrasolar colony.
Viability Rating: Howard seems to be a careful worldbuilder. I didn’t find anything in here I could complain about.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Katya’s World is written in third person prose, which is often a hard sell for me in modern YA. But it’s effective–lending the story a necessary distance. This is primarily a military tale, of characters who keep their cards close to their chests. Third (even close third, as this is) may be distancing, but characters like Katya crave distance.
Expanded Report: Katya’s World isn’t my usual cup of tea–it’s undoubtedly military SF (of a naval variety), and though it’s also undoubtedly YA, it’s light on the yummy romance that I love and instead focuses on action sequences and battles. While this sea-based science fiction is the type that I’m eager to recommend to my husband (because he’s really into Cold War submarine films), it still holds a certain nostalgic appeal. Howard’s work is particularly redolent of 1970s space opera–but in all the best ways.
It’s the story of Katya Kuriakova, newly an adult an embarking on her very first submarine mission, but it does not start with her. Instead, Howard opens with an extended prologue about the history of Russalka, an ocean planet. It’s an undeniable infodump, but it’s also a lively one, which gets us quickly up to speed: the water planet would have never been colonized if not for its mineral wealth. But then Terrans forgot about it, only to return far later and kick up a civil war. In less skilled hands, this would have been dry or unnecessary (prime fodder for skimming), but Howard makes it work with his smooth, confident prose and effortless worldbuilding.
And the world really does work, quite well. This is Russian inspired, but never feels like an appropriation. Howard’s world is fleshed out and effectively seamless. This allows us to follow Katya on her first crew experiences, told through nicely controlled, third-person prose.
Now, I’m a hard sell on third-person in YA. I suspect that modern YA first needs to appeal to a reader’s desire to identify, and first-person prose is an easy short-cut for identification. But I never doubted Howard’s choice to do otherwise. Katya is a bit of a chilly heroine, whose past is informed by trauma but who has chosen to very deliberately move on from that trauma. For her to be fully-realized, we need the narrative distance that only third-person provides. The use of third-person in Katya’s World is a strong reminder that there are very valid reasons to make certain (even unpopular) narrative choices. Though I’m not sure that most readers will be aware of Howard’s choices–because they’re smoothly executed enough to not be very noticeable–I appreciated the skill evident in them.
It’s different from my usual reads in other ways, too. This is a YA tale wholly lacking in romance. But it does not lack in human relationships. Katya’s relationships with the older men around her–her Uncle Lukyan and the pirate Kane–are touching and complex. Because Katya is a girl primarily defined by her desire for adult respect and recognition, these relationships, in lieu of romantic exchanges, made a whole lot of sense.
Still, the plot didn’t particularly appeal to me to the end–we’re treated to one action sequence after another, as the crew of the Baby find pirates and an artificial sea beast called the Leviathan. This action is fairly relentless, and might be a touch dry for those readers (like me) who aren’t action fans. But it’s worth reading through them. Ultimately, the Leviathan is a complex SF villain and technology both, and the difficulties it poses push Katya to her emotional limit. The climax reveals quite a bit about a strong-heroine who has withheld so much from readers–and it’s really quite a touching story in the end.