Zoya, Lilia, Anya, Demyan, and Nikolai, five friends who are trying to get out of a situation where poverty and deprivation are commonplace, arrange to emigrate to another country to continue their studies. They’re given permission despite this being a police state, though they’re challenged at the last minute and overcome it by quick thinking. Still, they have no greater ambition than to be students in a better place and maybe hang out on a beach.
Beyond some oddities with Zoya and a gadget she inherited, there’s nothing really special about this group or what they’re doing (beyond the fact that they’re allowed to leave at all). Most of them have suffered some tragedy in their lives, and they’ve joined together for mutual support as much as friendship.
The friends ride a train to the port, during which there’s some indications of political unrest and impending war. They get onto their ship after seeing more signs of the unsettled times in a suicide bomber, but generally they’re able to make their way without difficulty.
This changes when their ship is beset by pirates, and they’re swept up into a war bigger than they can imagine, with more tangles than even the reader can suspect. The five of them are innocent bystanders with little say in what happens to them, though they do learn and grow as they adapt to their ever-changing circumstances.
The strength of the book is in the five of them and Alexi, who is added later. Their relationships, loyalty, and determination no matter what the fates throw at them kept me reading despite issues with solutions appearing out of nowhere (or rather nothing significant mentioned about them before despite the characters knowing the key information) and a very real problem of the answer to intriguing questions being revealed long after I’d lost interest in the question. Sometimes, the answer didn’t even sync with the way the teaser was phrased, making me wonder if the first mention was an oversight rather than a seeded idea.
The five friends are rarely given a chance to demonstrate agency, but they do sometimes steal control of their lives despite everything standing in their way, something that’s as likely to go wrong as right. Alexi, on the other hand, is their opposite in that he’s always acting, whether in his own best interests or against them. He has the most agency of any in the story, and it often lands him in serious trouble, but at least he’s trying to do something from the very start.
I did enjoy how Zoya is finally able to use her engineering skills outside of school, and how Anya took to the sailing, and pirate, life. Each of the five friends has some sort of moment when they shine, though some don’t get that until the very end. What makes them stronger is how each has a distinct personality above and beyond their different skills. They also have different connections between them, some long-term, others shorter, some out of tragedy, some since childhood, and some stronger than friendship.
When things finally start coming together and the reader learns the background that led them to this point, things get quite interesting and even fun when it’s not tragic. The different cultures, the use of propaganda, and looking at the politics of control through the eyes of characters who began as innocent, but get smarter and more aware as the story unfolds, are also good parts of a story that, despite its problems, had a lot going for it.
I make a point of only reviewing stories where I see some value, so the very fact I’m writing this is proof I enjoyed a good bit of the story. There are some craft issues that might not bother other readers, but really stood out for me, and yet there are strong character interactions and a neat overall concept of the world. This makes me hope the craft issues will improve as the series goes on, because I think there’s a lot of value here, even if, at times, it’s hidden under a bushel of hay.