Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Buckle Yer Swashes for Queer Lady Pirates in the Abyss Duology

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Do you like pirates? How about queer pirates? How about female protagonists of color? Sea monsters? Moral ambiguity that doesn’t create false equivalences and actually informs characters personalities and choices? Dynamite, page-turning action? What about slow burn, complicated romances with a healthy dose of fic tropes like bed sharing, enemies to friends to lovers, handcuffed together, matching tattoos, and clothes sharing? Then Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss are the books for you!

To be frank, I’m impressed with how much character work happens in such a small amount of space. Don’t be fooled by the size! Coming in at around 280 pages each in paperback, they’re shorter than your average YA tome. But like the Tardis, they’re bigger on the inside and a doorway to epic adventures.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run Down

The Abyss Surrounds Us (2016): Cassandra Leung, or Cas, has fought pirates her whole life, training genetically engineered beasts called Reckoners to protect seafaring commercial vessels from pirate attacks in the NeoPacific. All that changes when she’s taken captive by pirates and forced to birth and train a black market Reckoner pup for her captors…or face death. Complicating it all is a pirate girl named Swift, whose life and future become bound up with Cas’s even as the former Reckoner trainer seeks to escape her floating prison and expose the black market Reckoner trade.

The Edge of the Abyss (2017): When Cas voluntarily joins the pirate crew that captured her, she and Swift find themselves fighting to move past their past hurts and ideological differences. Their own ship is a battleground, as their captain pits one against the other to see who will come out on top, as are the waters surrounding it. For outside, yet more rogue Reckoners—called Hellbeasts—have been set loose upon the NeoPacific by a scientist looking to turn a profit. With the ecosystem of the NeoPacific in peril, will the trainer-turned-pirate be able to fight against the creatures she once cared for and raised? Will she and her pirate girl be able to overcome their differences and save the seas they call home?

The Good Stuff

As those of you who have read my other YA trilogy reviews may recall, I’m not that big a fan of first person narration. Weak first person POV can ruin an otherwise compelling plot and characters, but that is decidedly not the case here. Quite the opposite. Skrutskie puts first person narration to its best use, providing a detailed, immediate view of the main protagonists emotions, perspectives, and thought processes.

It helps that I see bits of my own experience with ADHD in Cas. Whether its her need to fidget when she’s emotionally overwhelmed or how concrete tasks soothe her racing mind, I feel represented, even if it’s unintentional.

“I listen to the muffled rumblings of the ship’s motors, to the distant church of the waves against the island’s beaches, and let it drown out the constant noise inside my head.

But I can’t keep my thoughts down. Now that training is over, now that I’m no longer distracted by a simple task, my head runs wild with a constant chant—What next? What next? What next?

The future’s out to get me.”—The Edge of the Abyss, p. 180

Oh wow, yeah, that’s painfully accurate.

On a broader scale, though, Cas’s perspective is both engaging and necessary for the story to unfold as it does. Take the war of ideals between the perspective Cas was raised with and the one espoused by the pirates. This wouldn’t be half so compelling were it in third person. This is nowhere more poignant than in her relationship with the Reckoners. Her grief over Durga’s death, her private rebellion over training Bao, the hesitation to kill the frightened Hellbeast attacking the ferry and self-hatred over retraining Bao. As readers, we get to live in that headspace with Cas, and all while external circumstances and her relationship with Swift add their own pressures and urgency. It’s a potent cocktail for psychological interest.

The linkages to the overarching ideological differences between pirate and shore society—and how each views the other as murderous and cruel in their own way—enhance the conflict further. Only seeing Cas’s perspective, as opposed to seeing Swift’s as well, means we’re inclined to side with Cas, even when she’s wrong. Revelations of other character motivations are thus as complicated for us as they are for Cas. I love complicated when it’s done well, and Skrutskie does very, very well.

In the first book, Cas and Swift are both desperately trying to keep the both of them alive. The conflict derives from their different methods, which stem from their diverse backgrounds. The clash between commercial capitalism and survivalist piracy raises questions about death and exploitation. Is protecting a shipping vessel with a giant ship-smashing turtle murder or manslaughter? Justice or cruelty? And are the pirates any better for attacking said vessels in the first place? Does their desire to gain monsters of their own ‘even the scale’ or make them just as bad?

The books don’t provide definitive answers to these questions, because, there aren’t any. It’s a truly morally grey situation. No one’s going to come out of it with clean hands, and Cas must either adapt or drown (both metaphorically and quite literally).

Yet it’s more than social ideology; Cas comes from a place of cultural and economic privilege relative to Swift. One of the best parts of having a protagonist ‘in’ the system of privilege is getting to see how it works firsthand. Though we don’t get as much about the broader world (more on that below), we do see how working to raise Reckoners has shaped Cas to view pirates as collateral damage rather than human beings. We also get to witness the slow, painful deconstruction of her worldview from the inside.

The questions Cas’s experience unlearning her privilege and perspective raises are pressing both in a general sense and specifically given the state of our society: What causes people to rebel? What generates change? How do we move people from privilege to self-reflection?

The answer The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss offer is empathy. Seeing the lives of those she once discounted first hand—their struggles, their loves, their losses, their joys, and their sorrows—shifts Cas’s point of view. She can no longer justify destroying pirate vessels once she sees the innocent lives affected by such cold measures. Yet she brings the same empathy to the Reckoners, empathy the pirates themselves lack due to their experience on the receiving end of the beasts’ assaults. Through Cas, we see both that the pirates do not deserve to die at the hands of trained monsters, and that the monsters don’t deserve casual destruction.

The ‘sick pride’ some pirates take in Reckoner death cuts deep because we see firsthand Cas’s understanding of their biology and capacity for feeling. The fearful cephalapoid (a kraken-like Reckoner) broke my heart, and when Bao responds to Cas’s annoyed “you little shit” remark, I got a bit teary. Cas helps us see them for what they are: animals only doing as they’re trained to do. They’re not anthropomorphized or overly humanized. They’re…‘animalized’ for lack of a better phrase, given the dignity they deserve for what they are. It’s hard to explain without reading it yourself, but it’s well done.

Speaking of Cas, another strength of her as a protagonist is how well we get to know her, warts and all. Skrutskie doesn’t shy away from giving Cas honest and relatable flaws, and then allowing us to truly see them working in Cas’s mind and behavior. Cas is not a paragon of virtue by any means, though that’s not to say she’s a horrible person either. She’s just the right mix of positive and negative traits. She’s funny, intelligent, quick-thinking, and resourceful. She can be a bit broody, a bit selfish, and a bit of a dick, and I like it. Rarely do we get to see female protagonists get to be viciously acerbic and kind of petty without being condemned for it.

This isn’t ‘good, virtuous shoregirl’ meets ‘broody, edgy pirate girl’. Both Swift and Cas are little shits to each other, but without being catty. It’s just two people who are kind of assholes taking turns pissing each other off, then becoming friends and falling in love. It all feels so, well, so human. We don’t get this degree of honesty out of female protagonists often, much less queer female protagonists. It’s so refreshing I want to cry.

And their relationship flips so many tropes of YA romance that I consider hackneyed at best, toxic at worst. There’s no instant physical attraction that blinds the protagonist to her love interest’s flaws, no starry eyed declaration of this being ‘the one’ the moment she spots some specific physical feature. Theirs is a relationship built on trust, at first forced due to Santa Elena’s linking of their fates. But it grows beyond that, and not all at once. They put the slow in slow burn, and it works well to develop not only their romance, but their friendship and working partnership.

That there is no ‘instant spark’ actually forces the narrative to build their relationship in other ways. Instead of giving herself the easy out, Emily Skrutskie took the harder road of carefully building a believable frenemy-turned-lovers arc, and it pays off big time.

Likewise, Swift isn’t the pretty asshole whose closed off from everyone but Cas. Yes, there’s a layer of vulnerability that Swift lets Cas in on that she doesn’t share with others. But to me, it’s less a matter of “dude not in touch with his feelings who needs a woman to open him up” and more a matter of believable characterization given Swift’s circumstances and life history. And it may be that it’s just because two women have a different dynamic than a male and female character would. Broody and Emotionally Closed Off isn’t a trope strongly associated with female characters, so Swift doesn’t feel that way to me.

I can’t deny that a big piece of it is Skrutskie’s skill with writing characters. I actually didn’t realize how trope-y Swift and Cas’s dynamic sounded until I started writing it down. She’s just that good at writing people rather than trope-clad paper dolls.

This skill works to her benefit both in the first novel with the slow burn, and in the second with ratcheting up the—to borrow a phrase from Emily Andras—‘sexy, sexy drama’. Skrutskie takes her time establishing Cas and Swift’s personalities, motivations, and characters before beginning to edge them toward a romance. She’s patient, and boy does that first kiss scene in The Abyss Surrounds Us pay off because of it. Then when she finally gets to the steamy bits in The Edge of the Abyss, it hurts so good.

Although there’s one aspect to the conflict in The Edge of the Abyss that didn’t quite work as well for me, the rest of their ideological and culture clash works so well that in the end, that one plot point is a blip on the radar. Their romance is deliciously, believably complicated. I honestly couldn’t put it down. Good work, Skrutskie.

What I appreciate most about their dynamic is Skrutskie hammering on equality and consent. Time and again, Cas insists that she and Swift can only have a relationship on equal footing, and Swift agrees. It builds up the slow burn while at the same time thumbing it’s nose at those YA stories that perpetuate imbalanced, unequal relationships between the protagonist and love interest, even unwittingly. Power imbalances—like that between a captive and one of the crew who captured her—are neither healthy nor sexy.

“But even though I want to, even though there’s energy crackling between us right now that’s almost impossible to deny, I know we can’d do anything about this. I know how that would look. No matter how you swing it, I’m still a prisoner on this ship, and Swift is still one of my jailers. We go this far, no further…And until we stand on the same level, absolutely nothing can happen between us.”—The Abyss Surrounds Us, p. 238

Their first sexual encounter further drives the point home with its depiction of healthy consent and communication. It’s a bit awkward, a bit goofy, but honestly, what sex isn’t? I’ve been having sex for a couple decades, and I still bang my head on my partner’s nose or accidentally elbow them in the face. Two bodies that close together? It’s bound to happen, and that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable sex can be. It’s just real life.

Everything about their relationship feels so intentionally written. I deeply appreciate the realness of it all, and that makes it far sexier than some of the explicit smut I’ve read. It doesn’t eroticize innocence or shame past experience. They’ve both been with other people, yet that doesn’t take away from the beauty of what they have together. It’s special because of what they feel for each other, not because it’s a ‘first time’ or ‘magically better than every other sex’. Yet Skrutskie also takes the time to zero in on them asking each other what they like, what’s okay, and how they’re feeling. I haven’t seen that anywhere outside of fanfic, especially not for teens.

Normalizing multiple partners while not denying the specialness of sex with someone you love is impressive. But also normalizing the normalness of sex while still managing to make it sexy and enjoyable to read and normalizing communication? That’s a goddamn miracle.

Potential Drawbacks

If you’re a fan of expansive worldbuilding with meticulous attention to detail for the setting leading up to the current conflict, this may not be the book series for you. While the immediate conflict is well situated within it’s own time, there’s little in the way of backstory for how the world got to its current dystopian framework.

We know “the Schism” happened, for example, but not why or what that entailed. We know how the Reckoner breeding system functions and it’s role in protecting commercial interests in the NeoPacific, but not why such drastic measures were necessary in the first place. Neither is it explained just how commercial interests play into the larger socio-political structure of the Southern Republic of California (or the other states), or even how the different republics and nations that make up what used to be the United States relate to each other.

In one sense, this isn’t all that surprising. Almost the entirety of the story takes place out on the open sea. Pirates typically represent a more anarchist position in stories and operate on the fringes of society. These pirates in particular seem more concerned with eking out an existence (and sticking it to the privileged ‘shorefolk’) rather than starting a revolution to upend the current social system. Their lack of interest in the political minutiae of the landed states can be excused on that grounds.

The ocean is kind of a liminal space anyway, a microcosm to itself. The every day details of shore life in this universe impact seafaring life very little, and what does affect the pirates is dealt with on a case by case basis. It’s a struggle over resources, not politics, and it works in this context. Even the drive to save the NeoPacific biosystem from the Hellbeasts’ invasive predation revolves around resource management and survival rather than a political clash between pirate and shorefolk. Within that struggle, do the ins and outs of post-Schism society truly matter a great deal? Probably not.

At the same time, the lack of worldbuilding does weaken a bit of the immediacy of the struggle in both books. Or, rather, the struggle for power in the NeoPacific could have been even more evocative if situated by a greater knowledge of just how the landed states have fucked over the marginalized who end up becoming pirates. How awful is the world on land that a floating city where a good half of the people live in shipping containers is a viable option? Are they just that committed to freedom? Or is there truly no place for them on land?

And if the latter, why? Swift is convinced that there’s no place for her on land, but we don’t know enough about the society on land to contextualize her conviction. And is there truly no way for Cas to return to shore in some capacity? How powerful is the Reckoner trade? How much influence does it have on the government? Why do fishing and ocean-going trade have central places in the economy anyway?

Moreover, without a deeper knowledge of the society from which both Cas and the antagonist Fabian Murphy hail from, it’s difficult to understand his actions. The choice to so thoroughly screw over the NeoPacific by releasing unregulated sea monsters to those with neither the training nor skill to control them is a bit opaque. Especially when such a choice has the potential to utterly destroy the biosystem of an entire ocean. Are we to believe that Fabian Murphy is just that much of a shortsighted asshole that money was enough for him to say, “eh, fuck the ocean”? As he is a scientist, I find that hard to swallow without greater insight into the society he inhabits.

It is possible for this motivation to work, with the right context. Is the world now so thoroughly capitalistic that human and animal lives truly are only measured by the dollar sign? If so, I want to know more about that. It could explain Cas’s ruthless streak and ability to sublimate her feelings for Swift for her own advancement. The way in which interacting with Reckoners on a personal level would mitigate such a perspective could have been powerful as well. All of society wants to treat animate beings as objects sacrificed to the almighty dollar, but sows the seeds of its own destruction because human beings cannot live with their animals without bonding to them in some way. In the end, empathy finds a way.

All of this is making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the books or that these issues overcame my suspension of disbelief. They didn’t and I did enjoy them. I’m the kind of person for whom compelling characters can make up for weak or fuzzy worldbuilding, and the Abyss series overwhelmingly does. While I think the story could be even stronger had we gotten a bit more from the worldbuilding—e.g., greater context for how the Schism came about, what society looks like now, and how that plays into Murphy’s motivations for selling pirates black market sea monsters—they’re still strong books as is.

I’m just a greedy bastard and want even more. Instead of leaving me cold, the dearth of worldbuilding only makes me want to beg Emily Skrutskie to write another book in this universe to flesh it out. I’d read the hell out of a Santa Elena prequel. Or a prequel set just as the Reckoner business is forming that grapples with the ethical questions of breeding and training genetically engineered monstrosities to attack ships filled with innocent human beings. (God, I want that book so badly now.)

Skrutskie has such a gift for characterization and balancing fic tropes with upending toxic ones, that I’d honestly read anything she wrote, in this universe or out of it. There’s so much good about this duology that I don’t want to put people off just because I’m being nitpicky about worldbuilding. In this case, I pick out of love. And the desire to see something truly great be goddamn fantastic.

Final Score: 9.5/10

Thoroughly enjoyable, fast paced, action packed story with fleshed out, interesting characters and an eye to undermining toxic tropes and exploiting harmless fanfic conventions to their best use. It could have been a 10 with some additional worldbuilding content, but I’d still read it again in a heartbeat and heartily recommend it to my friends.

It’s queer, there are pirates; there are queer pirates. And sea monsters. And actually nuanced moral ambiguity. The protagonist is a a queer woman of color. Honestly, what’s not to love?

Images Courtesy of Flux

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