I have two great fascinations – for space and for deep oceans – and so I must be grateful to Jonathan L. Howard for combining the two in his excellent series of Russalka novels. Russalka is a distant planet covered entirely in ocean, its human colonists living within buried cities and communities, travelling between centres in submarines. Following a devastating war against its home planet, Russalka is now cut off from Earth and with no means to travel to other settled worlds. Life is hard and it is regulated by the military. This is a harsh world where the sun never shines, its oceans replenished by near constant rainfall, and the majority of the Russian colonists hate to get wet. That is unfortunate.
Katya’s War is the second in a trilogy to feature our young heroine, a teenage submarine captain who achieved her rank the hard way. After lighting a flame in Katya’s World, Katya now has to face the consequences. There will be minimal spoilers here for the first novel but they are always inevitable when reviewing a sequel. A review of Katya’s World can be found here.
Katya has grown up a great deal in the months since the preceding novel’s events. Russalka is split by war again, this time against the rebel Yags, and the Federation rules with an iron grip. Almost everyone and everything is militarised and Katya, as a hero with medals and a submarine captain (albeit the submarine is usually described as bug-sized), is caught in the middle of it. But something is wrong, some people appear traumatised and are acting out of character, and when Katya is taken prisoner by old ‘friends’ pirate Haviland Kane and the psychotic Tasya the Chertovka (the She-Devil), she is given a lesson on the threat facing this unhappy, watery world. Katya has decisions to make.
The character of Katya is one of my favourites in Young Adult science fiction – she is young but realistically mature. She is brave but she is still sensible enough to be afraid. And she is very likeable but not without those teenage flaws (and qualities) that make her seem more real. Despite the situation, Katya doesn’t take people at face value and she’s prepared to take a chance. Even the Chertovka appears to admire her grudgingly – which, equally grudgingly, Katya quite likes. This second novel does full justice to Katya’s character and personality and far from being a ‘difficult middle novel’, it exceeds the first book and sets up the final novel in the trilogy perfectly while being a satisfying story in itself.
It’s good to encounter Kane and Tasya again. We learn more about Kane’s history while Tasya remains as enigmatic and fearsome as ever. There are other characters we encounter here who throw up their surprises. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next.
There is no sugar coating. There are scenes that are graphic and horrifying. There is death and violence and there is also degradation and humiliation. Our feelings aren’t spared any more than Katya’s are and I liked that. This is a Young Adult novel but it makes few allowances. This is a novel about war and oppression, reminding us in particular of Stalinist Russia or Nazi-occupied Europe, and there’s no hiding the fact. This brutality is far more evident in this novel than in the first but it is very well done and is never too much or gratuitous.
Katya’s story is a trilogy but I understand that Jonathan L. Howard intends to write other stories in the Russalka universe (a short story ebook – Mojito Doomsday – has been published). This is good news. Howard has created a fascinating, original world that I would like to know much more about, as well as its history and its future. But first I can’t wait to learn what’s in store for Katya.