In an appealing and endearing departure from his dark comedy novels starring the necromancer and detective Johannes Cabal, Jonathan L. Howard engineered a wonderful underwater world in the fun-filled first volume of The Russalka Chronicles.
Katya’s World introduced us to a girl who had to grow up fast when she was drawn into a conflict that spiralled out of control quickly, and has continued to do so since. Colonised by human forces many moons ago before being abandoned, and at the last attacked, Russalka was recently rocked by an uprising of rebels determined to wrest control from the FMA. It follows, then, that in Katya’s War, we see this world at its worst.
The world had been much simpler then. Now, however... now she’d seen the kind of people who start wars at first hand. The experience had not filled her with confidence that they would be doing everything in their power to bring things to a peaceful conclusion. The FMA was furious with the Yagizban because the Yags had betrayed them not once but twice, first conspiring with the Terrans during the war, and then by preparing for a Terran return that never came. For their part, the Yagizban were sick of the Federals for getting into a war with Earth in the first place, and then using it as an excuse for never-ending martial law. They would fight like zmey over a manta-whale carcass, until one of them was dead, and the manta was torn to pieces.
Very sensibly, Katya has kept her own council since the war kicked off. Just making her meagre ends meet has been enough to keep busy with, and were it not for the insistence of a few familiar faces, she’d have been happy to keep at this neverending quest for cargo to transport.
The legendary Yagizban pirates Havilland Kane and Tasya Morevna have other plans for her, however. They capture Katya and forcibly escort her to a fallen facility where the awful cost of the war is in evidence: the bodies of innocent men, women and children are everywhere. Why? She can’t help but wonder. And for what?
This moment marks a real sea-change for the series, as Katya realises that there’s more to this war than meets the eye... that the good guys have been doing some truly terrible things:
She had lived her entire life as a citizen under Federal law, and Federal protection. The Federal administration was there to serve the people, to keep them safe, and to maintain services. They were the angels, the guardians, the heroes in advances AD suits that could fly for a little while, damn them. [...] But, no. They were just little people with too much power who did what little people always do when they have too much power. They abused it, and said it was for the greater good. Perhaps they even believed it. Perhaps when they entered the evacuation site and saw beyond any doubt that it offered no threat to them, they ordered the survivors massacred and traps placed because they honestly though it was a necessary evil.
On the basis of the aforementioned events alone, I hardly need note that Katya’s War describes a markedly darker narrative than its predecessor did. Howard, however, goes far further. That is to say the changing politics of its poor protagonist do not go unpunished: Katya is at points attacked, kidnapped, arrested without trial, detained in a high-security prison facility, systematically demoralised and tortured horribly.
A lot to put any person through, far less a sixteen year old girl only now coming to terms with the world. Thankfully, the author handles these dramatic developments deftly, incorporating new elements into Katya’s character naturally rather than simply foisting the shifting fiction upon her person. On the other hand, Katya’s nervous friend Sergei is seriously short-changed in favour of the returning Yagizban antiheroes, who in any case seemed strangely tame this time, demonstrating little of the malice that once made them so marvellously menacing.
But back from book one and more effective than ever is the unsettling sense that Russalka is itself a threat; that the very world could turn against Katya when she least expects it:
Like most Russalkin, Katya didn’t actually like water very much. She had the mandatory basic swimming standard that all Russalkin were required to attain, but hadn’t been near a swimming pool since. She would drink water happily enough, and shower in it, but quantities much larger than a sinkful of the stuff made her nervous. It felt like an enemy within, a little brother of its vast sibling waiting just beyond the next airlock or on the other side of the submarine hull. Waiting to rush in and crush, drown, drain the life heat from your very body. The Russalkin respected the sea, because the Russalkin feared it.
Eminently reasonable, really.
In my review of the first volume of The Russalka Chronicles, I asked interested parties to “imagine The Hunt for Red October meets Retribution Falls. Rich in the character department and packed full of underwater wonders from prow to stern, Katya’s World is exactly as enjoyable as all that. When the chance to return to this marvellous maritime planet arises, consider this critic suited and booted!”
Well, I was. And I will be again, because besides a more mixed bag of characters—and, I should add, an excruciatingly open-ended ending—Katya’s War makes for a great continuation of a terrific tale that takes what was wonderful about Katya’s World and turns it on its head, to excellent effect.
Katya’s War is available now from Strange Chemistry.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.