Book Review: Katya’s World

For the last few years I’ve been keeping my occasional book and film reviews separate from my personal stuff and news about my own books, by publishing them on my other blog, The Solitary Bee.  But this blog gets so many more hits than the Bee that it’s a bit unfair to the authors I review to hide them away there, so in future I’ll be posting reviews here as well.  If you haven’t read my reviews of recent books by Tim Maughan, Gareth L Powell, Kim Lakin-Smith, Deadly Knitshade, and Dave Shelton,  you can find them all here.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard
I’ve sometimes been heard to say that science fiction will be the Next Big Thing in YA fiction, or at least that it ought to be.  There have certainly been an awful lot of more-or-less SF-ish ‘dystopian’ novels recently, but most of them don’t seem very interested in actual science, so it’s nice to welcome one which is: 
The first volume of a projected trilogy, Jonathan L Howard’s Katya’s World is set on a distant planet called Russalka which has been inhabited by colonists of mostly Russian ancestry.  Since Russalka has no land, only an endless, storm-swept ocean, the inhabitants mostly live in pressurised environments beneath the sea.  The prologue explains how and why this came to happen, and how the colony came to be first abandoned by, and then involved in a war with, its one-time masters on Earth.
The prologue is, unfortunately, the book’s major weak point. Oh, how the heart sinks when a SF novel kicks off with a whole chapter-length chunk of exposition! And it’s largely unnecessary in this case, because  all the information it contains could easily have been revealed as and when we need to know it, in the course of the action. In fact, I’d be ready to bet that that’s how it was originally intended to be revealed: the prologue reads like something tacked on at the behest of an editor who thought young readers might be confused if everything wasn’t neatly explained up front. But don’t worry: as soon as it’s out of the way and the actual story gets going, Katya’s World exerts a grip which won’t let up till the final page.
Russalka is a greasy, grimy, ‘used future’, reminiscent in some ways of films like Alien, in which mankind has somehow developed interstellar travel and anti-gravity devices but continues to build claustrophobic submarines with technology pretty close to our own, and to indulge in familiar forms of inhumanity and political oppression.  It’s full of shadowy cabins, dank corridors and the dim glow of computer screens, and although Jonathan L Howard doesn’t waste many words describing his settings it’s all very atmospheric.
The wider backdrop is interesting too: an uneasy political situation in the aftermath of war, with growing tensions between the submarine cities and the surface-dwelling Yagizban Enclaves. Into this mix come swimming a mysterious and hugely powerful war machine, the Leviathan, left over from the conflict with Earth and connected in some sinister way with Kane, the political prisoner whom young Katya Kuriakova and her uncle are ordered to transport aboard their civilian cargo submarine.
Needless to say, their apparently simple voyage goes quickly and desperately wrong, and before long Katya is involved with traitors, pirates, and terrifying artificial intelligences.  There are quite a few chases, firefights and escapes, and several well-described submarine battles. There is plenty of awesome technology both under and above the sea, presumably all based on plausible science (I confess I can’t imagine how the anti-gravity machines are supposed to work, but what do I know?) and a lot of the action is built neatly out of the way submarines actually operate. There’s even a floating city called FP1, for people who like really obscure movie references.
Most importantly, the characters are engaging.  All these submarines would quickly grow dull if we didn’t care about the people they contain, but Katya is a strong and likeable heroine, convincingly frightened for much of the time, but quick-thinking and intelligent enough to come up with sound solutions to most of the problems which the plot hurls at her. Kane is an intriguing figure, too  – is he a villain or not? – and the rest of the cast (mostly pirates, submariners and gruff military types) are nicely rounded out, so that the good ones have their bad points and the bad ones are never wholly bad: even the charmless Officer Sukhalev gets a chance to shine.
And at the end there is an actual ending, which is always a worry when you start the first book of a trilogy. Plenty of loose ends remain a-dangling, ready to be gathered up in the next book, but this story concludes with a proper, spectacular climax rather than a cliff-hanger. It’s a highly effective, thought-provoking YA novel, and it left me looking forward to the next volume.
Katya’s World will be published by Strange Chemistry in November 2012