When Ana and I sat down to figure out what old-school, non-white/European science fiction novel to review next, one childhood favorite immediately jumped to mind: Reefsong by Carol Severance. I couldn’t recall much of the novel, other than that the protagonist had crazy biologically engineered tentacles for hands and the book was set on a distant planet inspired by Polynesian cultures. And, oh yeah, I remember that I really loved the book. Thanks to the power of ebooks, Reefsong has been saved from out-of-print purgatory and is the subject of today’s review.

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Thea’s Take:

Re-reading a childhood favorite is a terrifying thing—it’s nigh impossible for it to live up to sentimental expectations. Amazingly, Reefsong not only passes the test of time, it was even better than I remembered.

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Reefsong tells the story of Angie Dinsman, a UN peacekeeper and skilled fire warden in the employ of the World Life Company on a future version of Earth. After Angie nearly dies in a rescue attempt on the job, she awakens to find her body irrevocably modified: The World Life Company, owning 10 years of Angie’s life on a contract, has replaced her burned hands with tentacles and given her gills. Angie has unwillingly become a “squid” and, as part of a desperate gamble by the company, she is sent to recover sensitive, top-level research hidden in the algae blooms on the distant water planet of Lesaat. Needless to say, Angie is pissed at having been experimented on against her will, but grudgingly agrees to help—if only to find a way to find a way to tear the company down from the inside.

Featuring capable, intelligent heroines (Angie and her 14-year-old cohort, Pua) and a respectful take on a Polynesian-inspired culture, Reefsong excels on both the character and world-building fronts. Angie is a no-nonsense protagonist betrayed by someone close to her and finds herself victim of the company’s nefarious schemes. But instead of crumbling, she rallies. She must also confront her own prejudices and fears: her distaste for those who have gills and webbed (or now tentacled) hands and her fear of drowning. The world of Lesaat and the role of the Company in this future dystopian universe is well defined, as Reefsong grapples with issues of exploitation and ecological degradation without slipping into didacticism.

While some of the writing feels slightly dated—there’s an interesting use of exclamation points, and expletives are sanitized with phrases like “fire-loving” or “spit!”—the technology, genetics and science fiction aspects do not. In fact, Reefsong is easily better than any number of current SFF dystopias (especially those of the YA-crossover variety). Basically, Reefsong rocks. Absolutely recommended to readers of all ages and eras.

In Book Smugglerish, a cool 8 out of 10.

Ana’s Take:

Unlike Thea, I had zero familiarity with the novel and the only real expectation I had came from a preoccupation with cultural appropriation since the novel uses elements from Polynesian culture in the creation of its world. I also had fingers (and toes) crossed that this 1991 novel would not be as dated as a The KLF album.

Thankfully, Reefsong turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In fact, I absolutely loved it.

A futuristic dystopian world controlled by a company whose tentacles spread across the universe and whose influence is felt deeply in the lives of the citizens under its tutelage, this is a book with teeth. From its opening chapter, it is easy to see how no character is safe and that this company really means business when it comes to the control they try to assert. Breaking this control is, of course, inevitable and the fun centers around how the characters develop their plans.

Plot and character development merged successfully, and as one progressed, the other followed suit. I loved the book for its plethora of well-developed, fully fleshed main and secondary characters—most especially its portrayal of female characters. I loved that Pua, one of the main protagonists, is a pragmatic, headstrong, obstinate 14-year-old girl who has a clear plan for the future of her people. I loved that there is no sign of any false dichotomy between the pursuit of science and respect for nature; both are intrinsically linked. I loved the respectful way that Pacific cultures and peoples are incorporated into this story with a strong voice and active presence.

The things I listed above should be minimum requirement for any well-conceived sci-fi book. But when you read (or try to) as many dystopian sci-fi YA novels as we do, you come across false dichotomies and ridiculous, badly conceived premises that crumble under any amount of scrutiny. Books like Reefsong come as a breath of fresh air.

Absolutely recommended.

In Book Smugglerish, 8 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.