Non-Spoiler review… mostly.
Skyward is the equivalent of eating at a restaurant that is better than your average chain. At first it looks like an Applebee’s or a Texas Roadhouse. But after a minute or two inside you realize it’s the cool little tapas place that you randomly came upon while looking for something different. You’re skeptical, but once you get seated by the surprisingly cute server, get some fancy free bread with olive oil delivered wordlessly at your table, and then start checking out the menu, you start to think that this might be something special. Maybe someone is playing some soft guitar music toward the back. Maybe it’s nothing but candlelight inside. It’s the surprising risotto that you never expected to be that good because, after all, how good can risotto be? It’s just little balls of flour and shit. Well, it’s good. It’s damn good. You order 2 of them.
Skyward is a non-Cosmere Sanderson novel about failure. It’s another profound step in the growth of Brandon Sanderson, an author who has gone from formulaic cookie-cutter D&D fan fiction to being a brilliant novelist with endings that make you weep. I’ve immensely enjoyed the growth of Sanderson over the years, having dived into all of his Cosmere books after he concluded the Wheel of Time for the late and great Robert Jordan, but I shied away from this YA-looking novel for fear I would lose some respect for him
Spoilers: I didn’t.
Even though the protagonist is a teenage girl, the story arc is quite adult. Our intrepid hero, Spensa, is a character study in loss and determination. She learns to cope with death in a way that I believe would strike a chord in any person who has lost friends. I lost a couple of good friends in my teenage years to tragic accidents and mental illness, and Sanderson pulls zero punches when wading through the seemingly interminable quagmire of grief. Yes, it’s set in on an alien world in the distant future. Yes, there’s starfighters and psionic telepathy and mysteries all over. And yet these characters are the same people you interact with every day. He presents each character with messy, conflicting motivations that ultimately drive the story to its rather awesome climax. Sanderson has mastered the art of making the characters the stars, not the setting.
Perhaps the thing I loved the most was that Sanderson does not judge characters for their failures. Sometimes your loved ones don’t live up to your expectations, and that’s ok. Part of life is letting people down, and being let down in turn. It keeps you up at night, it leaves you second guessing yourself, it makes you angry at others and most of all yourself. But that’s life. People are going to disappoint you, and you are going to disappoint people. Even the supposed antagonists are complex people, doing what they think is right in messy situations. It’s one thing to give a moment of insight into the bad guy’s rationale, it’s another to flip the script entirely and give you a relatable, compassionate understanding of their point of view. The characters of Cobb, Admiral Ironsides, and even the seemingly mindless Krell all undergo this transformation before your very eyes and it is a wonder to behold.
It’s not perfect, but hell, what is? (other than Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson.) Some of Spensa’s juvenile tendencies are annoying, such as her affinity for pronouncing death to her enemies in increasingly saccharine speeches, but as the novel moves on Sanderson goes introspective, revealing the bravado of this brash young woman to be a mask for her pain. In this way he has learned to flesh out characters and plots in ways that left me thoughtful, putting the book down after a chapter to process what just happened. It wasn’t a quick read for me, I actually put it down a couple of times to delve into other novels, but it’s a lovingly, carefully crafted tale.
One last note I will make is that, for some reason, Sanderson excels at writing non-human “fish out of water” characters. There’s an AI/starfighter that Spensa nicknames “M-bot” (short for “massacre-bot”) that was reminiscent of his depiction of Nightblood, a sentient mass-murdering sword, and Pattern, a sort of living embodiment of the ideals of mystery and deception. He writes the characters in such a funny and relatable way that provides much needed comic relief to many scenes, while still providing character growth for these alien outsiders. I find myself wishing that Sanderson could have written a Data-centric episode of Star Trek: TNG, or an entire novel about the internal dialogue of Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. It says something that Sanderson writes non-human alien outsider characters probably better than human ones, but I don’t really know what.
In the end, Sanderson weaves a tale of loss and triumph that leaves the reader wanting more. I’ve been following this guy’s works for a couple years now and while I was frustrated he was writing novels set outside the universe I’ve become so invested in, it seems as though he’s using these beats to flex new muscles and tell interesting tales. I’m here for it.
And FYI the audiobook is beautifully voiced by Suzy Jackson. She nails it.
If you’re looking for a good fix of Sci/fi/Fantasy I recommend this book. It’s not the Stormlight Archive or Wax & Wayne, but it’s accessible, painfully human, entertaining, and damn good.
Image credit: Amazon