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Updraft cover

Alix E. Harrow:

It is a capricious reviewer indeed who finds a book both remarkably original and disappointingly cliché. If I were an author receiving such a review (and it’s a dangerous habit for a reviewer to imagine herself on the receiving end of her criticism, lest she be paralyzed by empathy), I’d be tempted to dismiss the entire thing as contradictory drivel, and then call my mother to moan about readers who wouldn’t know a good book if it danced naked in front of them. But here we are: Fran Wilde’s debut novel is unique and fascinating, and predictable and dull.

The world itself is responsible for the majority of the fascination. It’s a world of towers made of live, growing bone, occupied by people who have mechanically mastered the art of flight. The towers grow up from the earth like endless spines, and the populace makes their homes in the hollow vertebrae, swooping from tower to tower to trade their few, precious commodities. But only the bravest and best fliers make these journeys because of the skymouths: invisible maws that open in the sky and swallow humans whole. As in most societies that live in harsh environments, subsisting on the ragged edge of survival, the culture of the towers is brutally unforgiving. Punishment is harsh, failure is permanent, and the Laws are enforced by a sinister group of guardians called Singers.

Now, if you’re a reader after my own heart, you read the last paragraph and thought something like: sign me up. Flying people? Bone towers in the sky? An oppressive society that probably needs radical intervention? What could go wrong?

Up to a point, nothing goes wrong. The world is as real and spare as bone. Everything from the mechanics of flight to the texture of the skymouth monsters is explored with just enough depth to render the world legible, and no more. It’s an efficient and popular writing strategy, much encouraged by how-to-write-SFF books and blogs, and exemplified by recent works like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series. I sometimes long for more embellishment, more detail and explanation—how do the bone towers sustain themselves in an agricultural sense? What about water-capturing systems? Are there significant ethnic or linguistic differences between the towers? How come nobody ever flies down to find the earth?—but here I suspect I’m in the minority.

Even better, Wilde’s prose is strong enough to support a world so strange and wild. There are brief but lovely descriptions throughout the book, scenes built of madder and silk and bone, that even achieve a terse lyricism. It felt to me like the prose of a short-story-writer, and Wilde’s name has indeed appeared everywhere from to Asimov’s to Uncanny.

The predictability and dullness don’t come from the world, or from the writing itself; they come from the plot, which more or less boils down to a series of familiar coming-of-age-in-a-dystopia tropes. Kirit Densira is our young heroine, who we meet on the eve of a Very Important Test (in this case, the test that will permit her to fly unaccompanied, and join her mother as a trader between the towers). But the Singers have taken an unhealthy interest in Kirit’s future—because There’s Something Special About Her—and their intervention causes her to fail the test. She ends up in the Spire, training to be a Singer herself (essentially a Magic School), excelling at every lesson with an ease that borders on the obnoxious and making the requisite series of friends and enemies. Naturally she also discovers the corruption at the heart of the Singers, the Laws, and the city’s own history, and embarks on a brave quest to reveal the truth.

Now, I’m not inherently opposed to storytelling clichés. I’ve always felt that some clichés are repeated so often for good reason; perhaps they resonate in some important, deep-human-history sense, echoing the same stories we’ve told since the first sly speaker told the first story to her first listeners. A man must find his father, a monster lives in the deep, a wicked witch curses a princess. But somehow an author has to use those familiar bones, heavy with centuries, to build some new creature I’ve never seen before, something I can’t imagine until they’ve drawn the beast for me entire.

I’m asking, essentially, for each author to work me a minor miracle of invention. Updraft is not miraculous—the story moves easily but utterly predictably, and the story-beast is a close genetic cousin to a dozen other YA-ish fantasies I’ve read—but it’s hardly alone in this failing.

Some of the most clichéd stories can be rescued by compelling characterization, but here too Updraft falls short. Kirit and her friends and sometimes-enemies aren’t the two-dimensional archetypes of some fantasies (there are no Brave Farm Boys or Merry Thieves or Fair Princesses here), but neither are they fully realized characters. This is especially true of Kirit herself, whose motivations shift confusingly and sometimes mechanically in response to the demands of the plot. At first she only wants to be a trader like her mother, but once that straightforward ambition is crushed, she’s left adrift. She is neither a coldhearted survivor like Katniss Everdeen nor a clever schemer like Joe Abercrombie’s Yarvi nor a simple-but-brave Harry-Potter-type. I’m not sure I know her well enough to say what kind of girl she is, and that in itself is problematic—after several hours spent in her company, accompanying her from crisis to crisis, I ought to know precisely what kind of person Kirit is. Instead, I find I can only clearly recall her actions, rather than her fears, hopes, or desires.

Both of the above criticisms (clunky plotting and empty characters) would be enough to utterly condemn most books for me. But not Updraft. Wilde’s world still lingers too vividly in my memory, those stark bone towers standing strange and mysterious as ancient obelisks, for me to cheat another reader out of experiencing them for themselves. Nor do I intend to cheat myself out of experiencing Fran Wilde’s future writing—there are sequels planned for Updraft, and I look forward to seeing where the series might go once its wings are fully unfurled.

A. S. Moser:

An unnamed cataclysm has forced the remnants of humanity to seek safety off the ground. The (presumed) last bastion of humanity is comprised of living towers of bone—something like vertebrae, but lacking the spinal foramina and with flanges all the way round—and of necessity the survivors craft wings of silk, feather, and bone. Since no tower is truly self-sufficient, the traders who fly between them are vitally important for the life and health of the city. But there are dangers on the wind: skymouths, large flying predators that can turn invisible, reminiscent of tentacled and toothy variations on the Moa from The Adventures of Link. This is Updraft, Fran Wilde's wildly inventive and elegiac debut novel. And yet while the originality of the world deserves due praise, it is the likably flawed main character who lifts the novel from a curiosity into a pleasure.

Updraft is told through the eyes of Kirit, daughter of a noted trader, Ezarit. She's confident, even brash, prone to saying too much at exactly the wrong time. She's also subject to secret bargains and betrayals made by her parents and the Singers, the aloof pseudo-theocracy that controls the city. As such, there are multiple layers of mystery for readers: those that Kirit doesn't tell us because they're too obvious to her to reflect upon, and those she doesn't know, or doesn't know she doesn't know. This first-person narration makes a bewilderingly inventive world even more bewildering, because so much is left unexplained; yet that sense of discovery and the little hints dropped along the way are part of the joy of reading this novel. And it is a joyous read, though the experience is heightened if you aren't troubled by logistical concerns such as how to feed tens of thousands with extremely limited agricultural capacity. This suggests a tension in the reading of the novel, and I did feel a certain back and forth—half of my mind enjoying it immensely, while the other half felt slightly disappointed in the practicalities—and this internal conflict was further reinforced by the plotting.

Before explaining that, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the lucidity and power of Wilde's prose. She has an MFA in poetry, and the power of her words bolsters the peculiarities of her worldbuilding to craft a believably bizarre world of invisible flying monsters beaten back by the power of song. An early example of such prose falls on the first page:

On a morning like this, fear was a blue sky emptied of birds. It was the smell of cooking trapped in closed towers, of smoke looking for ways out. It was an ache in the back of the eyes from searching the distance, and a weight in the stomach as old as our city. (p. 9)

The towers of bone become prison-like, claustrophobic, something to be escaped—but Wilde avoids the easy juxtaposition of the freedom of flight. Instead, the focus is on the stomach-churning fear of an empty sky, Kirit instantly recognizing a danger which materializes for readers on the next page: "A predator moved there, nearly invisible—a shimmer among exploding gardens." When a guard is too slow in his flight, "the sky opened below him, red and wet and filled with glass teeth. The air blurred as slick, invisible limbs tore away his brown silk wings" (p. 10). In just a few sentences, readers are presented with drama and tension, provided with an enormous restraint upon character movements, and also given a mystery to puzzle over—what are these things? How do they fly? What do they look like? Where did they come from? This is an excellent foray into Wilde's world, and while we eventually do discover much about the skymouths, like other mysteries of the worldbuilding, there are unanswered questions which continue to entice after closing the book.

While the skymouths are the ever-present danger of the novel, and serve to force a limitation upon the characters' most important skill—flight—the real antagonists of the novel come from within the ranks of the Singers. They reside in the Spire, unique among the towers for having an outer, rather than inner, core. A puzzling combination of trap doors and fallen Singers with giant wings creates the Gyre, a wind tunnel in the center of the Spire where Singers battle challengers. Think of the sons of peasants or merchants challenging knights in the lists with all the disadvantages of poor equipment and little to no training—that's something like how the fights in the Gyre go, except that the beaters, the people below who shape the wind, have their own agendas, and are as likely to turn the wind against a Singer as for him. As is only appropriate, there are currents within currents here, and the Spire is simultaneously the most fascinating and frustrating part of the novel.

The basic plot of the novel is familiar enough: there is something special about our main character, which makes her needed and also dangerous to the priestly class; once inside their ranks, she discovers an epic conspiracy that challenges the very foundations of society; and Kirit will stop at nothing to illuminate the Spire's secrets—even when it puts the entire city in danger, because it is only mortal peril that can unite the fractured city and begin to heal its rifts. Straightforward enough, and while there are a few interesting twists—Kirit is forced to battle to the death her best friend, Nat, for example—it is in the pacing and diction of the narrative, not its broad sweeps, that the story truly engages. And while the novel seems egalitarian on the surface—Kirit's mother has earned an esteemed position in her tower through her fearlessness and bravery, and Kirit is skilled and courageous and looks to her mother as her role model—the underpinnings of the plot are a little disappointing. Considering how strong and self-reliant Kirit's mother is, and the fact that Kirit's principal contemporary antagonist is female, the other archetypes—lost fathers refound, presumed antagonists who become surrogate fathers, an overlooked madman who holds the key to unraveling everything—are notably male-centric. One supposes that the Gyre is suitably yonic, but the plot ends with the Spire opened to the skies, the Gyre destroyed by preparations laid by Naton, another lost father.

I'm reminded of Peter Hollindale's three levels of ideology, and the tension that often arises between the first two. The explicit message here is that women can challenge the power structure and be heroes, like Kirit; they can also be strong and silent and powerful, like Ezarit. And Kirit's story is not diluted by an unnecessary romance like so many novels with teenaged female protagonists. There are also several women in the council that rules the Spire, as well as among the leaders of the towers. But under the surface, the plot revolves around the presence and absence of men. Kirit's friend Nat is driven by the ghost of his father; Kirit, too, is driven by the mystery of her own disappeared father; once he is discovered, her disappointment in the sacrifices he's made to keep her safe and to maintain some degree of power causes her to turn to Wik, the Singer who schemed to have her cast down so she could be forced into the Spire. Sellis, her training partner in the Spire, oscillates between hating and grudgingly respecting Kirit before settling firmly on the former, but their showdown is made less dramatic by the fact that they fight on behalf of Rumul, the main antagonist of the novel. The battle readers have been waiting for, in other words, is overshadowed by the fact that it is undertaken as a surrogate for the real struggle against a powerful man. This might be splitting hairs, and I confess this part of the novel is thrilling if you're not troubled by such meta-awareness of the text (and highly enjoyable even if you are), but it was one of several sticking points which served to keep me at arm's length.

The other difficulty I had, one which some readers may be more willing to ignore, is in the consistency of the worldbuilding. Just how large are these bone towers, and how do they bear their own weight? It's not entirely clear: in some passages, the towers seem none too large in diameter; a single family might occupy an entire level. Elsewhere we're told that when Lith, a broken tower, collapsed, thousands perished, so we can assume they're fairly large and have dozens of occupied levels. And we know these extend quite high above the (curiously ever-present) clouds. Then there's the fact that these are living towers, protruding from some great beast which can be angered. While the sound of its roar shakes the towers and even partially destroys the Spire in the climax, the towers themselves never really sway. Can the city move? It can vocalize, and even moralize—it is aware of the actions of the tiny creatures that live upon it, and seems to be placated by sacrificial offerings when "Lawsbreakers" are thrown down. One may argue the characters are confusing correlation with causation, but then the city does respond physically and directly to Kirit's singing in the climactic scene. It's puzzling.

A last note on this point: making allowances for these people to be evolved and supersensory, even someone as naturally gifted as Kirit should take longer to learn highly difficult skills like echolocation. Her skill acquisition in the Spire occasionally takes time, as in her glossed-over training sequences with Sellis, but other times she almost instantly masters skills her contemporaries have spent weeks, months, or even years developing. This is not to say there should be lengthy chapters spent on Kirit incrementally acquiring new knowledge, but think of how Hermione always manages to know the right spell or technique to save her friends—and readers believe it because we see her putting in the work. If this were a videogame, I'd be disappointed at how easy it is to become over-powered.

In the end, Kirit's journey is more than enough to propel through the questions and improbabilities. There's the fairly common—though none the less powerful—symbolism of being from two worlds: having a Singer father and trader mother, being both of the towers and the Spire; in an earlier scene that foreshadows her involvement in uniting the city, she mends her shattered wings with the broken wings of her friend, patching the towers and Spire together—and patching her former self with her new self in the process. This has all the hallmarks of a good Bildungsroman, but in an admirably inventive world populated with complex characters who respond to their world in believable ways. With a sequel scheduled for release in 2016, and a third installment in the works, this promises to be an exciting and fun new series. I look forward to seeing where Kirit's wings take her next.

Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.

A. S. Moser is a writer currently living in Hong Kong. His current project is a science fiction novel about death, hacking, and Dylan Thomas. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

A. S. Moser is a writer and teacher. His current project is a near-future novel about rising seas, the collapse of currency, and smuggling. For more, follow him on Twitter.
Alix E. Harrow recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.
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