Published by Flux on February 8, 2016
Genres: science fiction
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For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.
There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.
But Cas has fought pirates her entire life. And she’s not about to stop.
I think this book is actually, objectively awesome. How it could not be? It’s a book about bad ass lady pirates menacing the high seas with genetically engineered monsters at their call. It’s also rife with moral ambiguity, making tough choices, and the search for one’s true self–however ugly or unwanted that truth may be. So, Kim, why “only” three stars?
Well, I actually find I don’t enjoy pirate stories all that much. At this point you’re wondering why I even read this book, then, and also why you are continuing to read this review. I really, really wanted to love this book and one of the key reasons I wanted that to happen is because this book features an f/f romance. Oh yes, and it’s pretty delicious, too. But we’ll get to that later. I was also very intrigued by the dystopian setting, and the monsters weren’t a hard selling point, either. I was hoping a combination of these factors would add much more intrigue and excitement for me than I usually find with books that take place on the sea.
But while there is plenty of action and intrigue to be found, this is actually a very internal story. 17 year old Cas is on her first solo journey as trainer to a Reckoner, genetically engineered beasts designed to accompany seagoing vessels and keep them safe from pirates. Cas has been born and raised into this industry, and has been very firmly anti-pirate her entire life. When Cas’ first journey goes awry, her Reckoner murdered, her ship destroyed she finds herself taken prisoner by pirates and forced to their bidding or risk her life.
Yes, there is geographical journeying, but the journey at the heart of this story is the one that resides within Cas. I think I might just be too much of a Hufflepuff, because the moral wrestlings in this story didn’t sit well with me. I really, really appreciate a YA heroine who is as strong and unafraid to put herself and her goals first as Cas is. But everything about this story sat so uncomfortably with me because I could not escape the feeling myself of being trapped. Cas is in an awful situation. Forcibly taken prisoner and coerced into raising an unsanctioned Reckoner whose allegiance to a pirate ship will destroy the delicate international political balance. Pirates having this creature will create true chaos.
This situation, of being trapped so outside the zones of one’s comfort and consent, had me scratching at emotional walls. I didn’t want Cas to find sympathy with her captors. I didn’t want her to find the shades of gray. I just wanted to get her home and safe. Of course, like the real world, things aren’t black and white. The pirates aren’t wholly evil or wrong. The industry of Reckoners aren’t wholly in the right. But I found the awfulness of Cas’ situation too much for me to want her to ever side with her captors. I realize the entire point of this book is to have a heroine journey through a complex moral and ethical situation, it just wasn’t for me.
The characters that Skrutsie has drawn are also very complex. Cas is very relatable and inherently easy to sympathize with. I didn’t always agree with her choices, but I respected them very much. You are with Cas every step of the way as she does her moral reckoning and decision wrangling. It creates a very intimate atmosphere between you and this character. Swift, the pirate girl whose fate is bound with Cas’ is vibrant and lovable for as tough and rough around the edges as she is. Even pirate captain Santa Elena is not a one dimensional villain, but a fully fleshed human with motivations and desires that are understandable if not completely respectable.
This book is also effortlessly diverse. I’m really not sure I can quite pinpoint what an author does that qualifies for the “effortlessly diverse” tag from me. I just know that sometimes I am reading a book and it seems as though a mishmash of “diverse” characters have been thrown in there just to be there because they are “diverse,” not because they have an actual purpose to the story. There is a clumsiness in these books that I notice. Here, Cas’ is attracted to girls and it is not at all a thing. It just is. There is no mention made at all of this being anything outside of what is considered normal. Cas is also POC, but again there is no treatment of this as anything remotely “other.”
And finally, the romance. This is a slow burn, hate-to-love lesbian romance. What’s not to love? I admit that I had some reservations in 100% shipping it since Cas and Swift are not on equal footing here. There is a power imbalance in that Swift is complicit in Cas’ continued imprisonment. But the story does acknowledge this, and rather skillfully balances the complexities of the girls’ budding relationship with that of their previous alliances.
From a critical standpoint, there isn’t much fault to be found. Objectively this is easily a 4 star book, if not more. The writing is fluid, the pacing is perfect, and there isn’t much of a dull moment in the story. My personal enjoyment? 3 stars. I enjoyed the little tidbits we received of what this post-United States world looks like, but I would’ve loved so much more of that. I will also shortly mention that I think animal lovers would also enjoy this more than I did. Not a little focus is placed on Cas’ bond with the animals she trains. I’ve never had a pet in my life so I’m sort of like a human alien in this regard. Overall, this is a very strong debut novel and one definitely recommended for those who love to explore moral ambiguity.