Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us


  • Release Date: February 8th, 2016
  • Author: Emily Skrutskie
  • Website:
  • ISBN: 9780738746913


Everyone who knows me is sick of hearing the phrase, “lesbian sea monster trainers” — whispered, with great enthusiasm, across the sales floor as I lovingly stocked more copies on my staff favorites shelf — but I’m not done with it yet. This book is everything I’ve been waiting to see emerge from the murky waters of YA. It’s a lean, mean sci-fi adventure that brings out the best of the genre in its premise and world-building. If Pacific Rim and Mad Max: Fury Road had a baby, The Abyss Surrounds Us would be it.

Our heroine is Cassandra Leung, a California teen whos trains genetically-engineered creatures called Reckoners to defend ships from vicious pirates on the waters of the NeoPacific. Her first solo mission out on open water goes horribly awry when she is kidnapped by the pirate queen Santa Elena and forced to raise a stolen Reckoner pup for her captors. With far more than her own life at stake, Cassandra’s loyalties will be tested in ways she cannot imagine. Even her heart may not be safe.

Abyss is an adventurous sci-fi romp through a world that manages to be post-apocalyptic without feeling “dystopian.” Instead of a gritty, industrial wasteland that looks like an exaggerated Hollywood set to anyone who’s never driven through Detroit, we have ingeniously constructed flotillas and artificial islands, coastal cities getting back on their feet after being relocated a few hundred miles inland, and a global economy that does what humans do best: adapt. Things are bad — much of the plot is centered around what drove the characters to piracy in the first place — but life (and the story) goes on, which I found somehow refreshing. Maybe it’s because the book didn’t wait for an attractive white person to get hurt before things were “bad enough” to get a rise out of society.

In fact, most of our characters aren’t white. I’m relieved that someone remembered that the Pacific might be inhabited by, I don’t know, Pacific Islanders. Or that they might be the first people to get screwed over by newly sea-based capitalism. Or that California might have an Asian American population. Really, just having a vaguely-dystopian futuristic novel that hasn’t erased all of its POC with no explanation is a relief. I raised my eyebrows at Santa Elena’s character (a sadistic black crime boss with a small child who is, apparently, fatherless? hm) but I think Skrutskie managed to pull her off by the end, and I expect we’ll see more facets of her character in the sequel.

Which brings me to the romance. In short, I’m in love with it. It unfolds slowly and naturally, as if actual human beings were consulted. Two girls are in love, and we don’t have to spend 90% of the book on one of both of them struggling out of the closet. And the unhealthy captor-captive dynamic is a deal-breaker! Multiple times! People communicate! Straight romances needs to sit down and take notes.

Now, I have been burned in the past when it comes to neat SF/F premises with LGBT characters. Sometimes, the spirit is willing, but the writing is weak. That is thankfully not the case here. Skrutskie has a clean, simplistic style that doesn’t rely on overwrought metaphors or too-detailed descriptions to mask other flaws in the prose — because, really, there aren’t a lot of flaws. She has writing chops and she knows how to use them, so prepare to be sucker-punched.

Go forth and read.


It’s Queer, It’s Here, It Should Be on Your Bookshelf

I return from a brief hiatus! On my tumblr, someone asked for book recommendations for science-fiction/fantasy/adventure books featuring PoC and LGBT+ characters. Here’s what I came up with. All links are to Amazon, but please consider shopping at your local indie bookstore or checking them out at your library instead. It’s the best way to feed your community and your favorite author!

The Abyss Surrounds Us — A snarky Asian sea monster trainer is kidnapped by pirates, lesbians ensue, and somebody remembered that the world is mostly not white. Pacific Rim meets Water World meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

Archivist Wasp — A teenage girl hunts ghosts to glean secrets from the mythic sci-fi past, but then one of them starts talking back and suddenly it’s all gut-wrenching trips to the underworld to find long-lost war buddies.

Huntress — A prophecy sends two teenage girls from a dying world on a quest to the city of the Fairy Queen. Prophecies have a way of fucking with young love, though, and cute biracial lesbian couples are no exception.

The Raven Boys — Southern Gothic, Arthurian romances, and The Fast and the Furious had a really weird baby. Kind of gay, mostly white, humor and character-driven drama up to its eyeballs. One of my faves.

The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin is the best writer currently living and I will fight you. This is the start of her newest trilogy. I won’t lie, it’s a brutal read. It’s like Between the World & Me written as an apocalyptic revenge saga. Bonus points for trans characters, basically no white people, and polyamorous triads.

The Inheritance Trilogy — Same author as above. Three books for the price of one! Captive gods, political scheming, assassination, exiled princesses and blind artists collide in a decadent empire about to collapse under its own weight and hubris. Come for the plot, stay for the genderfluid god of darkness and sexiness. Sexy darkness. Mmmmm.

Sorcerer to the Crown — A Regency fantasy-drama of manners about the first black Sorcerer Royal, a biracial (Indian/white) girl who wants to establish magical education for women, a devious fairy court, dragon family drama, and a Malaysian witch who has no time for your colonialism. Delightful, decadent, humorous.

Wake of Vultures — A biracial, bisexual, genderqueer teenager accidentally kills a vampire and finds out the Wild West is a lot more wild than she expected. CW for anything you might expect a dfab black/Native kid at the edge of civilization to face.

Ancillary Justice — An artificial intelligence that once commanded a starship and legions of vessels wakes up trapped inside a human body, and she is PISSED. Notable for its exploration of race and gender, especially when it comes to pronouns.

The Last Unicorn — It’s not really gay or non-white, but not many people know it was a book before it was a cartoon, and the book is always better. Read this if you were a child of 80s fantasy flicks like Labyrinth and Lady Hawk.  If you look up “poignant” in the dictionary, you’ll find a photo of the cover.

The Darkest Part of the Forest — On the surface it’s about a girl and her brother and the elf boy they’re both in love with who’s asleep in a glass coffin in the woods, but I think it’s really about the shackles of other people’s expectations and what you have to do to break free.

Carry On — It’s the gay Harry Potter fanfic you didn’t know you wanted. A chosen one returns for his last year at a magical school, but his obsessions with his missing arch-rival starts to turn to worry, and then maybe to something more. The author isn’t great about race in her other books, but this one came out ok.

Uprooted — Not gay, though surprisingly non-white for something set in fantasy Poland. A peasant girl is unexpectedly plucked from her village by her liege lord, the sorcerer known as the Dragon, just as a corrupt forest begins to devour the kingdom and its inhabitants alive. It’s like a much more grown-up Howl’s Moving Castle or Dealing with Dragons.

Every Heart a Doorway –This one doesn’t come out until April 5th, but I highly recommend you pre-order it. It’s about a boarding school for children who came back from fantasy worlds and cannot go back. It has a plethora of LGBT characters (openly asexual heroine! trans boys! lesbians!) but the part that really hooked me was the unpacking of their emotions and trauma. If you want deep characters, but with snark and humor, this is your book.