Jonathan L. Howard, author of the humorous Faustian series Johannes Cabal, ventures into new waters with Katya’s World, the opening to a new science fiction series aimed at young adults. As the title implies, this book follows fifteen-year-old Katya of the planet Russalka, a world with no landmasses aside from its polar ice caps. Ever since the original Terran settlers arrived from Earth, humans have lived underwater in pressurized environments and traveled by submarine—a difficult life, but one they take pride in. As the book opens, Katya has just become an adult according to Russalkin law, and she’s embarking on her first submarine voyage as a member of her uncle’s crew rather than as a passenger. Their journey unexpectedly takes them into unfamiliar waters, where Katya encounters pirates and war criminals and witnesses the awakening of an unstoppable monstrosity.
Science fiction worldbuilding
Even from the first pages, the worldbuilding was one of my favorite aspects of Katya’s World. The prologue, though essentially a big history infodump to start the story off, reads like a grizzled grandfather narrating the past century of Russalkin history, relating their origins from Earth, the colonization of their planet, and then finally their war with Earth. The information dumped on the reader is all interesting and feels fairly relevant to the backstory, with the old storyteller’s voice keeping the pace with its simple, unassuming narration. And then, throughout the rest of the novel, further details about this strange planet and different culture are revealed. All in all, Russalka feels like a believable planet with a rich, if brief, history, and I feel like there’s more left to learn in the future volumes—not just about Russalka, but about Earth and about the science of the universe.
The book starts with Katya’s viewpoint and stays exclusively with her for much of the novel. But even when we’re in Katya’s head, Howard keeps many of her thoughts secret from us. The moment when Katya has a sudden epiphany and goes to talk to another character about it only to be distracted by his circumstances and apparently forget all about the questions she had for him was maddening! For chapters after that, I paid close attention, waiting to hear what Katya thought she’d figured out.
The last portion of the novel adopts a more global viewpoint and follows several different characters. This is abrupt and really quite disorienting at first; I think the book would have been stronger for either sticking to Katya throughout or starting with multiple viewpoints from the beginning. It is possible that my disorientation was worsened by the rough formatting on my e-ARC, though; I do look forward to rereading this as a physical book.
This is a young adult novel with a teenaged female protagonist. Of course there’s going to be romance, probably even a love triangle, right? Refreshingly, no! There wasn’t a hint of romance throughout the book. In this story of Katya’s coming-of-age, she faces many challenges and life-changing events, but there is no time or place for romance. I do enjoy romance in stories, when it belongs; but in this case I was thoroughly glad with its absence. If Howard had tried to include it, it would have devalued the rest of the story.
Why should you read this book?
This is a quick, engaging read—so engaging that I stayed up too late to finish it. Every twist caught me off-guard and drew me further into the story. If there were any major issues with the writing, aside from my complaint about viewpoint, I was too engrossed in reading it to notice—which is praise in and of itself. This book is certainly suited to young adults, but adults will also find enjoyment in it. The characters aren’t forced into roles for the sake of fulfilling tropes, and the worldbuilding is tops. I certainly recommend Katya’s World to anyone who enjoys reading about life on imaginary planets, especially those who are sick of the abundance of love triangle stories in young adult fiction today.
Rebecca received a review copy of Katya’s World courtesy of Strange Chemisty.