You know what I really love? Intelligent protagonists. Not genius protagonists – your Sherlocks or Greg Houses or Lord forgive me, Doctors who solve the entire plot the instant somebody says something by chance that’s a convoluted metaphor for the actual solution to a mystery.
Then of course there’s your Harry Potter style protagonist, who doesn’t solve any problems or mysteries as much as follow a series of carefully laid out breadcrumbs and coincidences while being ever-so-brave the whole time and, despite being basically a child, constantly being put in situations of near-fatal danger by supposedly responsible adults.
Anyone who knows me knows that I devoured the Harry Potter books, loved (most) of House right until the end and am eagerly awaiting the next episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who, I love all of the examples I just gave, but it’s very rare even among these favourite things of mine that you find a properly intelligent protagonist. One who isn’t a magical genius, but isn’t oblivious to the plot twist the readers saw broadcast three chapters ago.
This is what makes Katya’s World, which comes out at the start of November, special. Jonathan L Howard has, in Katya Kuriakova, created that most difficult of things, the intelligent teenage action hero. You might disagree if you’re much smarter than I am, but throughout Katya’s World I kept seeing Katya figure out the next twist in the tale always a page or two ahead of me (and occasionally a page or two afterwards). Howard doesn’t cheat- Katya doesn’t work things out because she’s been gifted some knowledge that the writer refuses to share with you for dramatic tension, she has the same clues you do and she shows her working and when she tells you the answer you immediately see how you should have figured it out first, only you didn’t did you?
Katya’s World is Russalka, a human colony on a planet filled with valuable minerals and resources, but no landmasses above water. The cities are networks of tunnels and caves that have been drained of water, the primary method of transport is the submarine.
Before we go any further can I just say, why isn’t Submarine Opera a thing? Katya’s world is a great example of the awesome potential of the genre, and completely puts the only other examples I can think of, SeaQuest DSV, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Stringray and recent Beeb series The Deep completely to shame. Where the best of those examples (and I know I’m risking pissing off a lot of Roy Scheider fans here) manage to achieve the feel of a slightly damper version of TNG, Katya’s World creates a claustrophobic world where the weight of the water outside is constantly weighing down on you and your best method of finding out about the dangers beyond your submarine amount to listening really hard.
In a world like this is not hard to see why Katya, at the age of not-quite-16, would be expected to shoulder near adult responsibility, and while there is a certain amount of the common YA trope of the one teenage character being constantly manoeuvred into the centre of the action it’s not hard to see why the adults around her believe she’s capable of dealing with the dangers that they face.