Skyward (Skyward #1)
by Brandon Sanderson
Published by Gollancz (2018)
Throughout this book, I felt like I was reading Artemis, by Andy Weir. I try to refrain from making comparatives, but the premise of both plots are extremely similar: a female protagonist attempting to disprove society, outer space, and an identity conflict which pervades across the protagonist’s relationship with other characters in the book. I left the book thinking it merited a 4-star rating, but the more I thought about the ending, the more my feelings, and consequently, my rating dipped. To be fair, I think this book is truly an exemplar of 3.5-star writing. I’ll attempt to justify my conflicting emotions throughout this review. A couple of things I’d like to clarify: this book isn’t like any other Sanderson material. If you’re coming into this book expecting something similar to Mistborn – it isn’t there. You’d rather adjudicate this book on its own merit.
Spensa has always longed to be a pilot like her father – even when he flees in the middle of battle and is shot down by his own side in punishment for cowardice. Spensa is one of the descendants of a wrecked space fleet who found a precarious refuge in the caverns of a graveyard of a planet while an unknown alien species launches constant attacks, trying to destroy what civilization humanity has managed to recreate. Spensa and her family have to live under her father’s dishonorable reputation, even though Spensa is certain that he wasn’t a coward and that there has to be more to the story. Getting into flight school will be hard enough, but graduating will be even harder — many cadets and pilots don’t survive their first encounters with the enemy. In a predictable conclusion, Spensa participates in several heroic acts in an epic battle sequence at the end.
Let’s deal with the positives first, for I do think the book has plenty.
The characters are incredible. There’s a depth to each one of the individuals Sanderson creates, and each of them help with plot development greatly. What I admire about Sanderson’s writing is his ability to create character arcs for every one of his characters, without it feeling forced onto the reader. Sanderson cleverly masks each individual’s history: whether Cobb’s, Ironside’s, Gram-Gram’s, and even Jerkface’s, into their interaction with Spensa. This allows the reader greater understanding of each character’s motivations and weaknesses, with an easy comparison to Spensa’s own. Another result of doing this is that the focus never wavers from Spensa herself, which allows Sanderson to develop her to the fullest in this book.
Another component of the book I enjoyed greatly was the conflict Sanderson creates in the atmosphere. There are numerous levels to this, which deserves some appreciation. The first is of course, the conflict between the Krell and the DDF, which plays out in a very strategic set of wars. The second, is the conflict between Spensa and everyone around her – who doesn’t believe she is worthy of flying: either because of the fact that her father was a coward, or because she possesses a “defect”. Sanderson attempts to weave the two together in the conclusion – which I don’t particularly enjoy, but we’ll get to that later. The last, is the conflict Sensa senses in herself. Continuously driven by her fear of being labeled a “coward”, she resists using the term, and finds herself confused, at several junctures about whether her actions smell of fear, or of “cowardice”. This emotional conflict is a marvelous layer to the plot, which I think drove the narrative in this book.
Finally, Sanderson seems to have done some research before writing. I think the space opera elements of Skyward, in terms of the machinery and weaponry involved, is not any that’s present in literature today. The schematic drawings provided in-book were super fun to peruse through (although I feel like that’s something the publishing house added), the detailing was excellent. However, at times it felt like Sanderson got trapped in a pit of overusing the phrase “g-force” to describe any sensation Spensa felt in her Poco jet. The level of research I think tells most when it comes to M-Bot, which is a figment of his imagination, but I think, the funniest character in the book, with the wittiest one-liners. M-Bot’s technological prowess is phenomenal. Considering this is the first book in the series, I’m really hoping for more of M-Bot in later books to come. And more Doomslug.
Now, the negatives.
See, for all the joy Spensa the character gave me, I didn’t really understand several parts of her world. A conversation with a friend revealed that we were both equally clueless about how her world functions. To me, this is a big deviation from Artemis, which despite it’s own flaws, did a phenomenal job of world building. You almost had no questions to ask. Here, you’re left wondering how exactly/where exactly that world fits into our understanding of the galaxy, which I think is a bit problematic. Moreover, the lack of world building is an issue because this is the first book in the series. It feels like Sanderson lacked clarity about what he envisaged the world to be like. The first book, for me, is really important to gauge whether or not I’m going to be hooked to the series. Good first-books balance plot development and world-building really well, and Sanderson is capable of this: he shows us that through The Final Empire. This, however, falls flat in comparison. As a consequence, it feels like descriptions of the world in future books in the series are afterthoughts/additions to help plot flow better.
The second thing I disliked was the ending. I’m still actually quite confused about what actually transpired – because while I understood the action taking place on-ground/in-space, I didn’t understand the layering that Sanderson had done – in terms of Spensa’s final interaction with her mother/grandmother. It left a lot to be explained – something I’m hoping comes out in the next few books. I’m quite certain that it’s meant to be vague, to allow for development later in the series. The level of vagueness though, was a little too much.
To conclude: absolutely thrilling, fast-paced book. Great plot, amazing characters. Vague attempt to be profound at the end, unclear world.
You see my confusion? This is a 3.5 dilemma situation.
A friend of mine offered some good insight. I think this, unlike Mistborn, is meant for the younger side of the YA spectrum audience. An enjoyable read, but one I’m okay skipping out on. Which is sad, because Space stuff is usually right up my alley.