I can remember being a kid – it is an achievement: we are talking a long time ago now! – and reading a science fiction book that stuck oddly in my mind, whereas the name of the book escapes me. It included droids who boasted an infinite patience; a convict on a prison planet who had been experimented on and given a tail, for some reason, but who turned out to be a shapeshifter, language that used the word “stylised” a lot (why did that stick in my memory, of all things); and the ability to manipulate genes so that, as a punishment, our heroes were turned into apes for some period, remembering their humanity but unable to avoid acting as an ape…. If anyone recognises the book from that eclectic mosaic of memories, I’d love to know!
But the point is, that there was a sentient space ship in that heady mix too. And who doesn’t love a sentient space ship (I really must read Iain M. Banks Culture series some time) or indeed the quietly sentient house in Ninth House?
Anyway, with those memories, the synopsis of Skyward was a draw:
Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race is trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters.
Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible – assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her.
Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.Audible
There are echoes of the original Mistborn series here, particularly The Final Empire: like Vin, Spensa is on the outskirts of society; like Vin, Spensa is a complex mixture of resentment, defensiveness, fear and anger; like Vin, Spensa is unknowingly carrying a rare and uniquely powerful gift; like Vin, Spensa learns to overcome and to bridge the social strata of her society. Was it deliberate that Spensa’s callsign “Spin” sounds, well, an awful lot like “Vin”? Heck, I don’t know, but the echoes seem strong to me!
So, one of Sanderson’s strengths is always his world building: Roshar, adapting to the cycle of storms in The Stormlight Archive; Scadrial, choked in ash and mist, in the Mistborn series. In this book, Detritus, the planet on which The Defiant – the vast human flagship – crash-landed and was marooned two generations previously, is perhaps not quite as vivid. Igneous, the caverns beneath the surface housing Spensa’s clan, and Alta, the surface city or military base above Igneous, don’t have the three-dimensionality and physicality of those other books. I do like the name – a lot – and the layers of debris in orbit creating an almost impenetrable shield around the city. And shields are interesting ideas when you cannot tell which side of the shield you are on – do they shield you from something or are they blocking you?
According to The Coppermind website, Detritus is not part of the Cosmere – although revelations at the end of Skyward bear striking similarities to the Cosmere – but takes place in the same universe as Defending Elysium… which I have not read. Oh dear, another book to add to my TBR list!
Anyway, Spensa’s resentment and fears stem from her beloved father’s death: as an exemplary pilot, he had been honoured and lauded, until on one critical battle with humanity’s he was reported as having turned coward and fled. And a civilisation labelling itself as defiant despises cowardice, and despises Spensa for being the daughter of a coward.
Spensa is a fun character to spend time with: spouting bellicose catchphrases from her grandmother’s stories – “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery” – which do become somewhat tedious, but Spensa grows up through the pages in a very credible way, learning the superficiality of those ideals, and of the ideals of her society, and of her need for and the value of friends. Rig, Nedd, Arturo, Kimmalyn, Jorgen, FM – the trainees in Spensa’s flight, some of whom graduate and others don’t – all grow beyond the slightly two-dimensional stereotypes that they seem to be. Yes, the characterisation is a little clunky at times, but they work.
The novel may not entirely know where it sits in terms of audience: I think I read somewhere that it was marketed in America as Young Adult but Adult in the United Kingdom. Maybe that says more about the publishers than the novel, though. But the youthful protagonist, the school setting, the slightly heavy handed characteristion, the simplified world building all say Young Adult to me.
In terms of characters, though, let’s turn to the star of the show. That is that spaceship with which we began, found broken down and deactivated and powerless in a cave and slowly – oh so slowly! – powered up and repaired by Spensa and Rig is the most fun character! M-Bot possesses advanced tech, sentient, alive and afraid of death with a quirky personality, obstinate and obsessed with mushrooms his attempts to emulate human emotion run like this
“Hello!” M-Bot said to me from the cockpit. “You have nearly died, and so I will say something to distract you from the serious, mind-numbing implications of your own mortality! I hate your shoes.”
I laughed, nearly hysterical.
“I didn’t want to be predictable,” M-Bot added. “So I said that I hate them. But actually, I think those shoes are quite nice. Please do not think I have lied.”
Having listened to this on Audible, the narrator, Sophie Aldred (is that the same Sophie Aldred who played Ace on Doctor Who? I think it might be) gives M-Bot a comedy Scottish accent which adds to the fun of his character.
The novel progresses cautiously: from the moment M-Bot is found, his repair and return to the skies is the obvious plot arc we are expecting and Sanderson does not disappoint but it takes a while. Lengthy sessions in school, in holographic simulations, in battles – as well as the impossibility of the task – all delay that arc. That does allow Spensa to develop as a character, and the battles are well written and thrilling in their own right (once in actual ships anyway), but there was a part of me that was itching to get back to M-Bot! Again, it felt a little like the ballroom scenes in The Final Empire: good, but not quite the thrilling beating heart of the novel.
And who have humanity been fighting for two generations? The Krell, who send fleets of starfighters through the debris field to try to bomb humanity on a regular basis; and against whom humanity rely on the Defiant Defence League’s own starfighters. And beyond that, little is known about them: they are presumed to be alien and malevolent, but the armour found in the wreckage of downed ships always seems to be empty. The novel does contain some lovely sketches of the DDF and Krell ships (and M-Bot) and other features, all of which help to visualise the world, but Sanderson’s language is vivid and cinematic enough that they may be a little redundant.
Clearly, Sanderson is setting up a range of puzzles and questions in this book. Why did the Defiant crash? Who or what are the Krell? What happened at the Battle of Alta when Spensa’s father turned coward? Why has humanity lost the ability to travel between the stars? What is a cytonic drive?
Some of these questions are answered through it – although perhaps in ways which generate more questions – and others are unanswered or hinted at. Thankfully there is another book in the series, Starsight, to offer more answers – and I gather two more books planned after that. As Skyward was such pure and simple fun, I will definitely be heading back to (and out into the galaxy from) Detritus very soon!
World Building: ⭐⭐⭐
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 19th September 2019