Fiction Reviews


(2021) Brandon Sanderson, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, 417pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21795-9


This is the third book of the Skyward series, which started with Skyward and continued with Starsight. The series will continue with a fourth book, Defiant. As I have not read the first two books, I have to take Cytonic on its own merits.

One of the problems with anything but the first book in a series is how to fill in the story-so-far to a reader who has not read the previous volumes. Some go into detail at the start of the book, some weave the necessary facts into the story as it goes along, and some more or less ignore the problem; this book falls into that last category. There are odd mentions that refer back to earlier in the adventure, but they are more in the way of reminders for those who already know the story. However, this story is a particular section of the overall story arc and can pretty much stand on its own though, of course, you loose some of the sense of why it matters.

The story tells of Spensa Nightshade, a human from the planet Detritus. She is a soldier, a pilot to be precise, and she is fighting for her planet against the all-powerful Superiority. There are many races throughout the universe and they have long ago learnt to live together, though not without their prejudices. The Superiority is an organising/governing body and ultimately it wants to be the empire that controls all peoples on all planets.

The story opens at what is obviously the cliff-hanger at the end of the previous volume. Spensa is in trouble; she is trapped in a Superiority facility and its soldiers have almost caught up with her. Using her cytonic powers, she opens a portal to escape into the nowhere, along with M-bot, a powerful AI which has currently squeezed itself into a small service drone.

Cytonic is a term rather like ‘mental powers’. It incorporates abilities such as telepathy, deep empathy, and telekinesis, though such terms are never used. Using her Cytonic abilities, Spensa can jump from one planet to another, sometimes on her own or sometimes guiding a whole ship. The normal universe is known as the somewhere but when transferring to other places, Cytonics pass through another existence, another dimension if you will, called the nowhere.

As Spensa steps through the portal, she is aware of delvers, though exactly what these are remains a mystery until the end of the book, when she finally understands them (and that may be the purpose of this volume of the series). That discovery will explain a lot, though doubtless more so for those who have read the previous volumes. Meanwhile, as she is passing through, a single delver contacts her and advises her to walk the Path of the Elders (whatever that might prove to be).

She and M-bot tumble out of the portal into the nowhere, into a jungle, and the rules are rather different. For example, after a while she will adapt and loose the need to eat or drink, though she will still get tired and need to sleep. Also, and rather alarmingly, her memory will start to fade. She is soon attacked by local pirates but is rescued by Chet Starfinder, self-confessed interdimensional galactic explorer. It is he who explains to her how things work in the nowhere.

Explaining to him that she needs to walk the Path of the Elders, Spensa is pleased that Chet also intends, when his adventures allow him the time, to walk the Path. And so they set off. Soon Spensa discovers that they are not on a world as we would know it but more of a floating island which drifts amongst a ‘sea’ of other islands. The islands are of considerably different sizes and each is very different; one, for example, is a desert, another is an ocean. Eventually she is captured by a group of Pirates calling themselves the Broadsiders, though Chet remains free and in hiding nearby. This proves not to be a disaster, indeed, it is an advantage once they accept her and she becomes a useful member of the team. She finds that the nearer she stays to others, the less her memories recede; indeed, some of them even start to return. It becomes apparent that it is the need to aid their memory retention and general mental alertness that binds the various denizens of this land into the pirate groups.

After some time, Spensa realises that the secret to all their survivals is to overcome the local Superiority base and bring all the pirates together into one group that can successfully survive with the nowhere as their permanent home. Then she and Chet can continue on the Path and thus discover the origin and meaning of the delvers. Meanwhile, and throughout the story, M-bot has been trying to deal with something new to it - emotions.

The story is basically an adventurous journey across these strange worlds, and well drawn they are too. The action rarely lets up, and even the quieter scenes are really the preparation for the next round of actions. The story ticks along nicely in an enjoyable, entertaining way. By the end, Spensa has indeed found out exactly what delvers are and presumably this is very important to the whole series.

Whilst this story works OK as a standalone novel, it doubtless makes more sense, certainly with a better feeling of the overall meaning, if you have already read the previous volumes. My advice would be not to dip into the series as I have done but to start from the beginning!

Peter Tyers

See also Ian's review of Cytonic.


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