When I was a child, I remember tuning into re-runs of seaQuest DSV on the Space channel in Canada. (I was alive when it first broadcast, but it was in re-runs by the time I started paying attention.) I never watched the series regularly, but I’d happily sit in front of an episode if it happened to be on. I was captivated by the idea of a tricked-out submarine exploring the deeps of the ocean on our own planet Earth. I seem to remember the first season, especially, focused on the scientific parts of such exploration. (Eventually Michael Ironside showed up, which is fantastic for him, but the show wasn’t the same.) And say what you will about the show itself, the concept is brilliant. Even now, fifteen years on, we are still groping in the dark when it comes to investigating our oceans. Samples from James Cameron’s record-breaking descent into the Challenger Deep might yield new forms of life that could help treat illnesses or break down plastics. There is a "final frontier" here on our own planet, and while I’m all in favour of space exploration, I don’t think we should neglect what is right in front of our eyes.
So that’s where I’m coming from as I read Katya’s World. It isn’t similar to seaQuest DSV at all, except that both feature people in submarines. Yet Jonathan L. Howard strives towards that same sense of wonder when it comes to oceans and their relationship with humanity. As Kane stresses to Katya repeatedly, the Russalkin might have formed a distinct culture after three generations, but they are still human, and the way they interact with the ocean is rooted in this fact. From their technology to their mythology, their life on Russalka is not just a product of the immediate planetary environment but the culmination of thousands of years of seafaring, exploration, and naval warfare.
With a name like Katya’s World, and coming from an imprint like Strange Chemistry, you’d be expecting a book about a colony on another world. And it is. But Russalka happens to be a world without any dry land, and so its settlers have constructed underwater habitats. So Howard has written a science fiction book that is also a submarine thriller, with thematic echoes of Cold War spy games and piratical hijinks. There are a few technological innovations—sidearm masers are standard issue, since they are much safer in an enclosed environment; and mention of interstellar starships and the like, of course—but for the most part, the science and technology are very familiar. Howard confidently wields a vocabulary that immerses the reader in the story and slickly defines the unfamiliar terms while still advancing the plot.
So aside from the fact that it’s set on an alien world with slightly advanced technology, Katya’s World could very well take place in the oceans of Earth. The pirates and the FMA are two competing factions, or countries. Katya and her uncle are the innocent civilians caught in the middle of a wider power struggle. Meanwhile, a sea monster stalks both parties, intent on eliminating those who have awakened it from its slumber in the deep. And every time Katya or anyone else has a brilliant idea to solve their current problem, the stakes change, and the situation somehow worsens. There’s never a dull moment.
Thanks to these changing circumstances and tightly-written scenes, Howards maintains interest through what is otherwise a somewhat long, flat book. In other words, he kept me hooked, but I confess to wondering throughout what the bigger picture was. I was sure he was building to something more than just, "Escape the evil pirates" as the endgame. And to be fair, there is such a picture, but it’s dangled as a carrot beyond the end of the book. If you go into this looking for vast political machinations, you will be disappointed. The only resolution we get is on the level of family and personal relationships.
Fortunately, the protagonist is up to the task of connecting with the reader at that level. Katya is smart and competent, but not to a Mary Sue extent: she very often is the one who comes up with ideas, or makes a key cognitive leap at a critical moment. However, her solutions are never panaceas, and rather than have everyone stand around dumbstruck while Katya has to explain her leaps, Howard usually demonstrates that the people around her can arrive at the same conclusion, albeit after a few more seconds. In this way, he creates a heroine who is independent and self-assured but not unrealistically capable. On an ocean world, anyone who isn’t intelligent is probably going to die pretty quickly.
Katya isn’t the chosen one. She’s not particularly special. Vampires could read her thoughts, and she isn’t the last scion of a diminished faerie house. She just happens to be in the wrong (or right) place at the wrong (or right) time, and she makes the best of her situation. This is what makes for interesting fiction. All that other stuff is merely decoration, and sometimes I feel like the rabid and hyperactive buyers—by which I mean the publishers and agents who trade in it, not the readers—of young adult fiction lose sight of this fact.
I have nothing against young adult novels, or novels of any stripe, in which the protagonist is special, chosen, or destined for greatness. If she happens to have some special quality that brings all the boys to her yard, all the more power to her. These narratives are important, particularly for youth, because the real world is harsh and often anonymizing, and these special qualities of heroes help us feel more distinct in our individuality.
Still, it is so refreshing to have a young adult novel in which a young woman succeeds because of her knowledge of science and quick thinking. Even more shocking, there are no love interests in sight! There are no cocky rival navigators just her age, ready to step in and infantilize her for a trivial navigation error. There are no slightly-older-just-to-the-point-of-creepy mentors who taker her under their wing with only the slightest of leers. Katya spends the majority of the book in predominantly male company, it seems; at times she schools them, and at times they school her. It’s almost like Howard is claiming that everyone can learn something from everyone else.
In short, Katya’s World is an original novel with a fantastic setting, compelling plot, and likable characters. Howard knows how to create a balance between too little and too much exposition, which allows him to impart a fairly detailled sense of Russalka’s origins and its relationship with Earth. Principally through dialogue, Howard educates us about submarine travel and what life might be like beneath an ocean. And while he does this, pirates and an insane submarine warship threaten our protagonist from all sides.