One of the joys of reading anything by fantasy and sci-fi author Brandon Sanderson is his ability to craft multidimensional supporting characters. Conversely, if there’s any criticism to be levelled at Skyward, the first of three books in his latest series, it’s that Sanderson has a tendency to have his quirky supporting personalities sound the same across his various titles.
It’s a minor criticism of a superbly crafted chronicle, with mysteries upon mysteries and solid character growth from start to finish. Though technically a young adult novel, Skyward is a real treat for anyone who enjoys a good space story.
Skyward tells the tale of Spensa, a teenage girl who tries to earn her place piloting a starfighter for the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), protecting the last of the human race from alien invaders.
Running from hostile creatures known as Krell, humans had purposely crashed their spacecraft on Detritus, a planet orbited by a mix of space junk, debris, as well as mysterious ancient machinery and defence platforms that were in place well before people arrived – and these helped repel the attacks.
The humans call themselves Defiants, naming themselves after the flagship that brought them to Detritus, and live in underground settlements after the surface proved unsafe from on-going Krell bombings – a gap in the orbiting protective armour allows Krell fighter ships to get through. In retaliation, the DDF has been sending fighters and scouts to track and engage the enemy to protect their last surface base.
Not only does Spensa want to fly for the DDF, she also needs to clear her father’s disgraced name (call sign “Chaser”). In the prologue, she watches him go off into one of the fiercest battles the world has ever seen. But we soon learn that he turned and ran away from the skirmish – at least according to official reports – and later died after being branded a coward.
Anyway, Spensa is stranded on the planet’s surface during an unexpected Krell raid, and finds shelter in a cave where she discovers an old starfighter that appears to be better designed than any ship in the DDF. Spensa and her best friend, Rig, make repairing the craft their main goal in life, especially after discovering the ship possess an extremely advanced artificial intelligence, beyond anything currently available on Detritus.
The AI reveals itself as M-Bot, which, even after a century, is still following its last command to “Lie low, M-Bot. Take stock, don’t get into any fights, and wait for me here”.
Favourable comparisons can be made between Skyward and the late sci-fi author Anne McCaffrey’s Ship Who Sang series. But while McCaffrey’s “brain and brawn” combo – an intelligence running the ship, a mobile partner running around outside – may seem dated considering how far technology has progressed since 1969, Sanderson dreams up the kind of futuristic stuff no one could have thought of 50 years ago.
Yes, M-Bot has that same idiosyncratic, quippy tone as Sanderson’s other characters Lift (from his Stormlight Archive series) and even Alcatraz Smedry (from the Alcatraz books), but this won’t bother readers new to his world.
For completists, however, echoes of similar character tones could be the first sign of wear and tear on a writer who seems to readily release one, even two, novels a year.
Also, in less ambitious hands, Skyward could just be full of the relationships Spensa forms with her friends, mentors and enemies – and that itself is rich material which makes for a fun, engaging read. But this is Sanderson, so fans know there’s a whole lot more.
He continues to flesh out secondary characters like Gran-Gran (Spensa’s grandmother), who remembers arriving on the original flagship, and a tough admiral (call sign “Ironsides”) who runs the DDF, and flew with Chaser on the day he was branded a coward.
As the plot unfolds, we learn the tantalising why and how the humans actually ended up where they are. Nothing in Skyward is what it seems, apparently, and following Spensa as she unravels these mysteries to find the hidden secrets behind those enigmas … it’s a can’t-put-down-page-turner. Sanderson has truly scored another hit with this series.
If you’re interested in a prequel, try tracking down the short story, “Defending Elysium”, which appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction (in the United States) and the UPC Science Fiction collections (in Europe). Skyward is set in the same universe as “Defending Elysium”, which details some events before humans became fugitives.
Skyward (Book #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Gollancz, young adult science fiction