Cover art by Lee Gibbons
THE FIRST BOOK OF THE RUSSALKA CHRONICLES
JONATHAN L. HOWARD
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
First published: 6 November 2012
This edition published: 8 November 2012
On the cover:
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.
Howard's world is an interesting one, not because it is a water planet, but because of how society works there. Much of the worldbuilding is done in the prologue, which is essentially a brief history of the planet of Russalka. I really like that approach to avoiding infodumps. It sets up the scene without slowing down the story, and it cuts down on the need for clunky conversations that exist only to impart information in the story. (I wish more writers of SFF would use this approach.)
Science Fiction worlds that have been colonised but are not fully developed will unavoidably have at least a shade of the American "Old West" feel to them, but here that is absolutely minuscule. Society here is built not on the usual US/Western, or world government that we so often see in Science Fiction, but instead on Russia. This, along with a non-uniform range of settlements and sub-societies, makes the world Howard has created feel far fresher and more original than a quick glance will make it seem.
This being a Young Adult novel, the heroine is of course a teenager. And Katya being a teenager is in some ways essential to the plot here, the novel would read very differently if she was an adult, and I don't think it would work as well as it does. Katya's portrayal is not in any way unrealistic, considering how she is described as growing up she acts in a way that feels very natural. She doesn't suffer from the "stupid when it serves the story, but super-intelligent when it's called for" disease that many teenage (, and adult for that matter,) characters suffer from. Instead she comes of as a well rounded person that in many ways is not very different from the people you meet in real life.
The supporting characters in the novel are also well portrayed. They are fully formed human beings, all of them with their own agendas and histories, there's no cardboard cut-outs whose sole purpose is to fill out the scenery.
The story doesn't waste time, already in the first chapter there's things happening that are not part of the daily routine for the characters involved, and soon after that it becomes very clear that we are in for quite an adventure.
Once things start to happen they don't take much of a break before you reach the end of the story. There's plenty of action and a lot of suspense throughout, and Howard handles both of those elements very well. Plenty of tension is created by not really having a clue of where the story is headed, although I must admit there were a couple of minor incidents that were a bit predictable. But overall this isn't the sort of novel where all the tension comes from how things are going to happen, the story gives little away and it's not really clear where the story is headed. There's plenty of twists and turns making for a really good read.
To sum up, this is a great Science Fiction story. It belongs to the Space Opera side of the Science Fiction genre but it doesn't have many implausible elements, making it a good read for anyone who enjoys Science Fiction -whatever their age is.
Anyone who's come into SFF from Harry Potter and/or The Lord of the Rings shouldn't hesitate to pick this up to discover more of what the Science Fiction side of SFF has to offer.
For me this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I look forward to getting my hands on future installments of Katya's story.
LINKS: Jonathan L. Howard Strange Chemistry