(2018) Brandon Sanderson, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 513pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21785-0
Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are 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 Ė 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.
Skyward is the start of a new epic series from Brandon Sanderson: epic in scope and epic in length, because thatís his way, and this is another of his novels that is over 500 hundred pages long. Gulp! I thought, gauging its thickness, another meaty tome from the master, but this one comes in at 55 chapters, with a prologue, an epilogue and 'interludes' in between chapters, making it a page-turning, easy read. Ever the meticulous researcher, Sanderson who is well known for his rules of magic, actually spoke to several fighter pilots as he developed his rules of future flight fighting, and that also included speaking to some physicists and mathematicians along the way. Throughout the text we also get a few illustrative sections showing turning methods and loops that ships can employ, as well as designs for various flying fighting machines.
Sanderson has freely admitted to wanting to write a boy and his dragon story and drew his inspiration from the film, Top Gun and, believe it or not, How To Train Your Dragon, although other people have likened it to Enderís Game and Battlestar Galactica. For me, the first Star Wars film came to mind, with its dog fights and flying mission to bring down the Death Star. Here, the mission at the end is to stop an alien, enemy bomber whose bomb will kill everyone, but also right at the end of this book was there a hint of things 'Force-ish'? Finally, the other novel that reared up in my head was James Barclayís Heart of Granite concerning fighter pilots on a giant, living, moveable, reptilian creature that is sort of an aircraft carrier, except the aircraft are dragons the pilots slide inside and mentally connect with. What are the similarities to Sandersonís novel? Well, there are a few, but to list them would spoil your reading of Skyward so read both, then discuss.
While wanting to write a boy and his dragon story, the main character of this novel is a 17 year-old girl called Spensa who lives with a group of shipwrecked humans on the planet Detritus, and yearns to be a fighter pilot in the fight against the alien, Krell, who constantly attack them, but she has little chance of joining the DDF Ė the Defiant Defense Force, as her father betrayed his own crewmates and he has been branded a traitor and Spensa is very much an untrusted, outsider because of it. The only way into the flight academy is by taking an exam, but Admiral Ironsides makes sure that Spensa makes a hash of it, and fails, but she later retakes the exam in secret and gets a near prefect score, drawing her to the attention of Cobb, her fatherís old co-pilot who takes her under his wing. Thus, begins a tale of heartache and tragedy, betrayal and discovery, friendships and revelations.
As usual, this is a novel that allows Sanderson to demonstrate his considerable skills as a writer, particularly his world-building skills, creating a world where resources are scarce and the humans are running out of the hardware and the pilots to continue to make a stand against the Krell. He has also created a group of well-rounded characters who we already love or hate but expect surprises and more character development on the road ahead.
Readers familiar with his work will know his ability to juggle multiple story strands and crank the plot up to eleven, then twelve, and it is no different here, although my only quibble is that there is a heck of a lot of revelations and discoveries jammed into the last twenty pages or so as Spensa discovers hidden abilities that she and her new ship M-Bot possess, but also revelations about the Krell and their relationship with them.
Skyward is the first of a series of four books. In the US it has been marketed as a YA (young adult) novel, already reaching the top end of The New York Times YV bestsellers list, but in the UK it has been marketed as an adult book, which it isnít really, so bear that in mind when you read it if you happen to be an old geezer like me. The second book, Starsight, is hopefully due out later this year and I look forward to hanging on to some part of M-Bot. Buckle up, Iím sure itís going to be a bumpy ride.
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