Guest Review: UPDRAFT by Fran Wilde (Tor)

WildeF-B1-UpdraftUSPBWelcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Reviewed by Ryan Frye

Upon its release, Updraft enjoyed a fair amount of positive buzz from SF/F critics and reviewers that I respect, and when it popped up on numerous “Best Books of 2015” lists, I knew I had to give it a read. When a book receives such widespread hype, my anticipation tends to ratchet up. First and foremost, I was very intrigued by the idea of a city made out of living bones, where humans live far above the ground and get around by flying. This set my imagination running, and I was excited to find out what exactly brought the situation into being. Furthermore, I tend to prefer books written in first person perspective, so this seemed like it would be a perfect read.

As the story opens, our narrator Kirit is training to pass her wingtest, which will allow her the freedom to fly around the city of bone spires as apprentice to her mother, one of the city’s most skilled traders. However, her dreams are dashed when her tower is attacked by a skymouth (invisible, flying, tentacled monsters that plague the city). During the attack, Kirit accidentally breaks a few city laws, which lands her with community service, which may or may not mean she will miss her wingtest. The events of the attack also lead the Singers (the city’s oligarchical governing body/special forces) to realize that Kirit has a very raw ability to control the vicious skymouths with her voice. Of course, the Singers want Kirit to join them so she can train to become a Singer herself, but Kirit doesn’t want to give up her dreams of becoming a trader like her mother.

The first third of the book comprises Kirit’s struggle to avoid a fate that, to any alert reader, is a foregone conclusion — an experience that I found rather tedious. I couldn’t shake that “I’ve been here before” feeling, as the book covered well-trodden “special snowflake” genre ground. Once Kirit enters her Singer training, there are some more genre clichés.

WildeF-UpdraftUSThat being said, the book then really starts to pick up around the 1/3 mark.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very intrigued by the world, and how humanity came to live in giant living bone towers, never seeing or touching ground. Through Kirit’s training with the Singers (an organization with many secrets), Wilde tantalizingly doles out little snippets of history and world-building. The result is one of the more interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across.  This world is so different from anything I’ve read that it was at times hard to wrap my head around how everything works. How do they get fresh water? How do they get plants to grow at such high elevations? What animal species are prevalent? How do they pollinate their plants? How do the bone towers manage to stay upright when they are so extremely tall? How many people live in each tower tier? Some of these nuts-and-bolts questions are answered, while others aren’t; and more and more popped up as I read. For some, possibly many, I’ll just have to suspend my disbelief. Either way, I found it absolutely fascinating and captivating on an extremely nerdy level.

Speaking of things captivating, fascinating and exhilarating: the flying scenes were excellent. By virtue of the living situation in Updraft, people get around by flying on glider-type wings. With the threat of death or, at best, crippling injuries or dismemberment the result of any error in the skies, the flying scenes in Updraft were pretty tense. Add to that the fact that characters choose to have aerial fights, and you get some incredibly pulse-pounding moments! I was very impressed with how Wilde made these scenes so vivid and fun.

Voice and who is heard in society is an underpinning theme in Updraft, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. As Wilde teases out bits of history and the inner workings of her world, this theme really develops and gives the story a firm foundation, and provided motivation for the characters. Overall, Wilde did a wonderful job of weaving this theme into the narrative, and it provided a lot of tension and gave the story a degree of heft that sets it apart from other genre books of its ilk.

With a number of elements lifting this novel up, I did have a couple issues with the novel. First, I found the first person voice to be a bit dull. There really wasn’t anything about Kirit that gripped me or made me want to root for her. For a “special snowflake” character, she was quite ordinary. Additionally, I found that the other characters that populated the novel were quite one-dimensional. None of the characters had any qualities that made them stand out or demand my attention. The overall flatness of the cast took away from my overall enjoyment of the novel, and prevented me from fully engaging with the story.

Taken as a whole, Updraft is a decent read. While it has some qualities and elements that lift it above the fantasy clouds, there are also elements that drag it down. This is a book that is quite close to being very special, but in the end misses the mark. That being said, its good qualities are very good, and will be more than enough to thrill many fantasy readers.

*

Also on CR: Interviews with Fran Wilde (2015 and 2016)

Fran Wilde‘s Updraft is published by Tor Books. The sequel, Cloudbound, will be published by Tor Books on September 27th, 2016.

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