by Elizabeth Carlie
Few fantasy novels can truly say they have the ability to capture a broad audience with a little something for everyone, but author Fran Wilde, with her starkly breathtaking novel, Updraft, can make that claim. With elements of steampunk, conspiracy, young adult adventure, and a pale, brilliant world above the clouds with an equally dark and horrifying underbelly, few can enter the pages of this volume and come away disappointed. Though Wilde has had her short stories previously released in publications like Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and Tor.com, this is her first novel – and as debuts go, Updraft is nothing short of absolutely stunning.
Kirit Densira lives in a world above the clouds, vast and limitless as its denizens travel from one place to the next in flight on man-made wings. Making their homes in towers of living bone, it is a world at turns intricately beautiful and shockingly primitive, ruled with the absolute rigidity of tradition and the power of the Singers. Mysterious figures dressed in gray and sworn to protect as well as lead the city, they live sequestered in the Spire, the central bone tower in the city, where they rarely see the sky.
The daughter of a well known trader, Kirit is prepared to follow in her mother’s footsteps: to past her wingtest, the flight test that will give her leave to travel the city as she wishes, and become her mother’s apprentice. She yearns to be a hero, traveling from tower to tower, to have songs sung about her—then one day breaks Law during an attack of skymouths, invisible and monstrous creatures with gaping red maws, powerful tentacles, and ferocious glass teeth. Having broken Law, she faces a terrible choice: earn pardon for her crime by joining the Singers, or incur the wrath of the Singers that will fall upon not just her, but those she loves.
Reluctantly, Kirit joins the Singers and trains as one of them, but during her instruction discovers terrible secrets that threaten not just her own safety, but the safety of her city and the people she loves, the tower she once called home. To save it all, she must risk everything to expose corruption and let her truth be heard – or be thrown down from her towers to the treacherous depths from which there is no return.
Updraft is a gripping read that wastes no time in drawing the reader in, asking the readers to learn about the world by context as events move along rather than dropping blocks of exposition on them. It makes for perfect pacing, and leaves the reader as breathless as if taking off on a pair of the man-made wings that are so integral to the story. Equally enigmatic are the details in this world Wilde has constructed, a city in the sky made of living bone. With the exception of a few festive notes, the world of Updraft is a landscape of vivid pastels, pale bone set against a bright blue sky and white clouds that lead to unknown depths below.
Despite its steampunk elements of manufactured wings, flight lenses, and bright, heroic traders dressed in beads and silks, it’s also a very primitive place, violent and ever changing. Those who are guilty of Lawsbreaking are thrown down from the towers, and when the living city roars in fury, those who wear their Laws, or bone tokens displaying the rules they have violated, are retrieved and ritually sacrificed to appease the city’s anger. The Laws of the city are steeped in tradition and absolute, leaving the citizens to live at the mercy of the much feared Singers. They are the ones who hand down Laws, and those they recruit to join their ranks are forever torn from the families they love.
The best part of this novel, however, is not just Kirit herself. Along with her is a varied and multi-layered cast of characters with stories of their own, some of which come out during the course of the novel, and other which may come out in later novels that expand on this universe.
Overall, this book holds thrills for the adrenaline junkie, fannish delights for the steampunker or the survivalist, and possesses unique features in world building that have yet to be seen in the fantasy genre. As debut efforts go, Updraft is a shock to the system: it hits you hard, grabs on tight, and like the treacherous, misunderstood skymouths, will consume your imagination before you ever see it coming.
Updraft is available now in bookstores everywhere. For more information on Fran Wilde, her work, and the further adventures of Kirit Densira, check out her interviews on SCIFI.radio’s The Event Horizon and Writers After Dark . Love the novel? Let Fran know on Twitter, and remember to check out the hashtag #skymouthprotectionsociety to learn more about these complicated creatures!
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.