There are days when YA book shelves seem filled with nothing but paranormal romance and dystopian social critiques. It's almost a relief to come across a book that is a straight up pulse pounding adventure set on an alien planet. Katya's World by Jonathan L. Howard is just that book. Set on the ocean world of Russalka, Katya's World follows Katya on her first day of her navigator's apprenticeship aboard her uncle's submarine, called Pushkin's Baby.
The Pushkin's Baby is just supposed to be on a short delivery run, when a Fed agent commandeers the sub to transport a prisoner: pirate Havilland Kane. The Fed is just a green kid, whose demands get them attacked by an unknown enemy — and the book takes off, though the plot stays mostly underwater. As Katya struggles to survive the next few days, she encounters pirates, technocrats, a Federal submarine crew, war criminals and unheard of technology. As she tries to sort allies from enemies, we discover there are two, then three, then four factions on Russalka.
In the background of it all is Havilland Kane. He's a dangerous, smooth-talking man who knows far more than he's saying. He doesn't think or act like the hard, pragmatic Russalkins who are descended from Russian colonists. He's brave and occasionally honorable, but he's got an agenda that may not be entirely clear even to him.
There's a lot of talk about how awesome female heroines are these days, but fifteen-year-old Katya is the real deal. She's stubborn and tough, driven by her desire for respect. She's also really smart in a believable way. Plenty of other characters figure things out, but often at the same time as Katya or just after she points out something important that she's noticed. The reader doesn't ever feel like the adults around her are idiots, but rather that Katya has actually earned her place among them. Katya's also entirely unburdened with a romance. Occasionally romances in adventure books feel like a crutch to let the characters emote all over the place. Katya is far too controlled for that, but her emotional responses are still believable and have depth.
The presence of competent, reasonable adults (in addition to the standard villain type) is also refreshing for YA. Their life experiences help Russalka feel fleshed out, like an actual place with history and tradition. Not that the book throws all the current trends out the window: Rusalka is a classic dystopia. The narrative doesn't need to tie itself in knots to explain how we all got from pretty okay 21st century America to some blasted hellscape. Russalka's history as an abandoned colony world, then battleground as the Terrans attempt to recapture it, is straightforward. That the society that grows without Earth's intervention has some decidedly Soviet aspects -– bureaucracy, totalitarianism, straightforward female equality –- also feels organic. The details of all this are pretty expertly woven into the plot, though there is also a prologue that lays out the whole history in a quick five pages. I suspect the prologue is unnecessary, but it was nice to not really have any historical info-dumps in the novel and to feel like we were just getting on with the action.
And the book is action packed. It's filled with last minute escapes, firefights and submarine warfare. Not only are there dangerous characters and machines, but there's the ocean of Russalka itself. There is no dry land on Russalka and most people live in underwater habitats and travel by submarine. Everyone is only moments away from being crushed, drowned or frozen in the metallic-salt seas. So each choice has to be weighed against the possibility of ending up on the other side of the airlock.
On the minus side, there were some errors and inconsistencies — at least in my digital copy of the book — which distracted me from the story. Like the villain quoting idioms at Katya that she's never heard before, except that she used one of them at the start of the book. As publishers offload more and more editorial functions onto authors, I worry that we'll see more errors of this sort.
In any case, Katya's World is a fast paced adventure that is good solid science fiction — from the alien planet to the threat that lurks in Russalka's depths. It's reminiscent of plenty of golden-age juvenile books – a blend of action, mystery, and cultural and technical information. Howard, who wrote the Johannes Cabal books, easily channels authors like Heinlein and Asimov, but keeps the action up to "tentpole movie" levels. He's contracted for one more book in this series, but I could easily see him expanding the story to take in other colony worlds or the now-embattled Earth. It's hard to know if Katya's world will turn into the sort of multi-volume universe that both Heinlein and Asimov created, but it certainly could be. Especially if the other volumes were as exciting and fun as Katya's World.