Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard

9/10 For those looking to get into the sci-fi genre this may prove to be an effective gateway novel.

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.

Katya's World by Jonathan L. Howard is a sci-fi YA novel, and probably my favourite book so far from the guys over at Strange Chemistry. Set in the far future and focused on a Russian colony who have managed to colonise a completely underwater world, Howard dares to take his YA audience into the realms of "hard sci-fi" and "space opera". It's a combination of genre's that on the surface seems unlikely to work, but Howard shows a deft touch in writing a story that takes sci-fi elements and makes them understandable without dumbing down their complexity or patronising the target audience.

The story begins on the planet of Russalka, a far distant mineral rich planet with a catch - the whole thing is underwater. It took the hard and smart work of a Russian colonisation team to build small cities inside the underwater mountains of Russalka, and with all that hard work done, the resource mining could begin. I could probably go on forever about the depth of world building Howard managed to effortlessly cram into this book, about the intricacy used by Howard in integrating Russian culture with submarine culture and a proposed far future space-faring culture, but to keep this review short I will summarise - Earth started exploiting Russalka, Russalka stood up for themselves, Earth attacked Russalka and Russalka managed to withstand the barrage until Earth could no longer afford to keep up the sustained attack. The result is we now have a Russalkan colony who are hardened, bitter, and jaded about the whole situation and the prospects for the future. Looking back on this book, I keep becoming more and more impressed, not only by the level of detail in the world building, but by the way Howard managed to communicate it without impeding the progress of the story or the development of the characters. I feel like I will treat this book as the 'gold standard' for world building in YA books for a long time to come.

Ok so I've talked a lot about the set-up, but this book is really about a young girl named Katya Kuriakova and her krazy first day as an employee onboard her uncle's kargo submarine. Katya is fifteen years old, a very capable navigator who has just finished her training, and she has a real 'attitude' that goes with being probably the most 'mature' fifteen year old in her class. After having their submarine commandeered to transport a notorious pirate into federal custody, things go from bad to worse when they are attacked by an unknown "Leviathan". Thus begins Katya's story of survival, from her flight from the monstrous being determined to hunt them down, to her determination of a plan to take out the monstrous being, and all the disastrous misfortunes that plague them along the way. For me, this was a very well thought out storyline that meshed in perfectly with the world building while moving along at a fast pace. It did get slightly predictable on the run towards the climax, but given all the wild action that was driving the plot towards the end I think I was happy with things being predictable.

Looking at the characters, I found a lot to like about Miss Kuriakova and the rest of the support cast. Katya is a driven and determined heroine who seemed to be very aware of her limits but would always try to push beyond them. At times she comes across as a bit of a "Mary-sue", but I think Howard does enough work in the background to warrant Katya being such a capable teenager. Of all the female teenage protagonists I've read in the past few months, Katya is probably second in terms of likeability (with Julie from Poltergeeks being my #1), and that just helps me to like the story even more. There a quite a few support characters in this story, but I guess the most involved sidekick has to be the mysterious sea pirate Havilland Kane. Kane plays numerous roles in this story, from antagonist to protagonist to mentor, with believable switches between all three roles. I did get a bit annoyed with him towards when the motivations for his actions started to become less believable, but I'm going to forgive him because of his Han Solo like devilish charm.

I really had a lot of fun reading Katya's World, and I think for those people looking to get into the sci-fi genre then this may prove to be an effective gateway novel. I'm really looking forward to seeing where Howard takes this story in the next book.

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