Underwater Wonder: Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard

Having cut his comedic teeth writing the Broken Sword series of point and click puzzle games, and honed them to a sharp point through three novels starring Johannes Cabal, the renowned necromancer and detective, Jonathan L. Howard continues his mission to maintain a presence on bookstore shelves with the first volume of The Russalka Chronicles, and I bet it’ll be his greatest success yet.

Katya’s world is dystopian, of course. “But for its polar ice caps, there was not even a square meter of dry land on the whole planet,” yet when a probe finds a veritable treasure trove of rare minerals in the oceans of RIC-23, folks from all across Russia are brought in to colonise it in any case. They name their harsh new home after “a race of mermaids, beautiful and mysterious. If they had looked deeper into the [originating] myth, they might have changed their minds — a Russalka was a predator that would use her charms to draw men down to the water, where they would be drowned and fed upon.”

An ill omen, no? On an underwater world, to make matters worse! But for a time, despite the odds stacked against them, the Russalkans thrive. That is until Earth attacks: a century after abandoning the colony entirely, an army arrives out of the blue, demanding the people’s fealty. When they dare to disagree, the Terrans promptly wage war. In a matter of minutes, they devastate all they can of the planet, but finding themselves ill-equipped for prolonged underwater assault, Earth’s forces eventually retreat… broken, if not nearly beaten.

From here on, the Russalkans live in perpetual fear—and into this climate comes Katya Kuriakova, an aspiring navigator with admittedly little interest in her homeworld’s history.

For better or worse, that will change when—in the middle of her first official mission—she becomes involved with public enemy number one, Havilland Kane:

“He was a ruthless pirate, a murderer who had saved her life. He was probably a Terran, a Grubber, one of the filth who had killed her father and thousands more, yet he had also saved the Novgorod and everybody aboard her. Katya didn’t know what to think. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him, but she certainly couldn’t like him either. That only left her the option of indifference, and Kane was a hard man to be indifferent about.”

Like many books of its particular ilk, Katya’s World lives and dies on the basis of the relationship between Kane and our plucky young orphan. But wait till you hear this: they don’t even kiss! Howard simply isn’t about such an easy out. Instead, Katya and her chance companion are at one another’s throats throughout, smartly arguing ideologies and debating what they should do with the leftover megaweapon they find on the ocean floor. Yet when a still greater threat arises—from within as opposed to without—they demonstrate themselves adult enough to put aside their differences.

Call me an easy mark, but I fell for Katya and Kane incredibly quickly. The latter is an immediately engaging antagonist, with secrets, clearly, and though Howard’s characterisation of Katya is at times a touch discordant—one moment she’s brave and pragmatic, the next she’s “just a stupid little girl [with] no idea what she was doing”—overall I came to care a great deal about her, especially in light of all that she’s lost… not to mention all she loses over the course of this surprisingly merciless coming of age tale.

Half the fun of Katya’s World, however, is in one’s discovery of it; of its aquatic marvels and unearthly terrors equally. To wit, I wish the author had parceled out the heavy wedge of information he dumps whole-hog in the prologue. Other than this, Howard equips himself tremendously well, such that the first volume of The Russalkan Chronicles towers above most contemporary attempts to invoke dystopia.

The climax, finally, is fantastic. It may boil down to “one long round of jumping out of frying pans into successively larger fires,” yet the last act’s successive set-pieces unfold so spectacularly that they’re a joy to behold, albeit in one’s imagination. Even then, Howard’s prose is so pure that at this stage I don’t even need to see the movie—and if Hollywood doesn’t come a-calling shortly, filmmakers are missing a trick.

But you know what? For this, I’d line up on opening night anyway.

Romance aficionados need not apply, but all other fans of fun are likely to find lots to love about Jonathan L. Howard’s new novel. 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 marvelous maritime planet arises, consider this critic suited and booted!


Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Speculative Scotsman. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.


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