Kirit and her best friend Nat are on the verge of an important rite of passage, their world’s equivalent of taking a run at the driving exam. If they pass the test, they will be allowed to fly alone, on wings made of bone and leather, between the bone towers of their city. Failure means having to be accompanied by a responsible adult. It is the gateway to an independent future. Kirit hopes to apprentice as a trader to her mother, Ezarit, whom she idolizes. She envisions a future of travelling from tower to tower, mother and daughter, doing deals together and delivering vital goods.
The world of Fran Wilde’s new novel Updraft is a complex aerialist’s paradise, albeit a paradise besieged by monsters called skymouths. It is a single city, one subject to arbitrary-seeming laws, and its towers are living bone structures that grow ever higher. The hollow chambers within these spires shelter the citizens, but over time they grow cramped, closing on the lower levels, forcing the population into a perpetual scramble for altitude. Who you are, what you do, and where you’re located within your home tower are matters rigidly controlled by the Laws everyone is taught to sing in school.
As for people who defy this established societal order, they are given citations—tickets, if you will—that literally weigh them down. The heavier a person’s crimes, the more likely that they will drag them out of the air and below the clouds, where certain death awaits.
Kirit and Nat both fall afoul of city Laws enforcement, aloof officials known as Singers, just days before their big exam. They are set an exhausting punishment: manual labor, the primary point of which is to wear them out so they fail the test. The reasons for the sabotage are complicated, but at core the issue boils down to the Singers wanting Kirit, who has an unusual if unlovely voice, to join their order.
The Singers are set apart from ordinary Tower life, essentially cutting their family ties in order to serve the city and its needs. It’s an honorable position and a job that demands tough sacrifices, but Kirit wants the freedom of the skies and the cut and thrust of trade, not life as some kind of cross between a monk and a flying police officer. Both kids work fiendishly hard to rise to the occasion, but, as often happens, the other side doesn’t play fair. The exam goes badly, and to protect her mother and Nat from Singer reprisals, Kirit joins them after all.
Her training confirms a certain aptitude for crucial Singer skills, particularly the control of the exceedingly dangerous skymouths. There’s also much for her to unlearn… because the civilians of the city are given, from childhood, a carefully edited version of their own history. It’s all for their own good, of course, and given that Singers put a stop to tower-versus-tower warfare, it seems reasonable enough. She trains in combat, too, learning to fight on the wing, and copes with a embittered rival who feels displaced by the tower’s newest apprentice.
As she begins to make her way within the rigid Singer subculture, Kirit glimpses less benign secrets moving the Singer agenda. Like any governing body, hers has become somewhat corrupt. How serious is the problem? Investigating carries her to the heart of a conspiracy tied to her long-lost Singer father, and perhaps to her mother, too. Soon Kirit must choose between family loyalty, supporting her order for the sake of its life-sustaining work, and the risk of breaking Laws so heavy they will plunge her into the abyss.
There has already been a lot of chatter about Updraft, particularly with regard to its worldbuilding, and every word is deserved. This universe of fabric wings and musical Laws that Fran Wilde has created is unique and vivid, imagined with conviction, and beautifully detailed.
Kirit herself will not escape comparison to Katniss Everdeen, I think, given her revolutionary bent and the fact that the government essentially abducts her from her home to do a job that requires, at least sometimes, hand-to-hand combat. At first her situation may not seem as dire as that of some random Hunger Games tribute, but at least a tribute knows the situation is kill-or-be-killed, and their enemies are clear. Kirit, meanwhile, can’t really be sure who’s engineered her plight: It might simply have been a faction of Singers, or it may be those she trusted most.
She is a determined and gutsy hero, capable of great compassion and courage, but also impatient and often defiant, even when it works against her.
Novels about political conspiracies can often be a little hard to follow. Their protagonists are, naturally, digging into things that people wish to hide; in Updraft, like many such stories, Kirit is exploring a mystery that stretches back well before her birth. Wilde does a good job of keeping it simple, but as readers untangle the past actions of now middle-aged adult characters, the story blurs from its otherwise sharp focus. But the aerial culture and duelling conventions of the Singers make it strangely plausible that a healthy young teen with good fighting skills could affect their government in a significant way. (This is something I find hard to swallow in a lot of similar works, including the aforementioned Hunger Games novels.)
Kirit doesn’t act alone, or without help, by any means—she is no single-handed savior of her people. What she is, instead, is believable. She starts out as something of a pawn, but she fights hard, creating opportunities to take action whose impact we can easily credit. This solidity in the plotting of the novel’s conclusion offers a nice counterpoint to its imagery, a dreamy portrait of a fragile society whose very nature is to blindly seek the stratosphere, and a people who flit from perch to perch without ever putting a toe on the ground.
Updraft is available September 1 from Tor Books.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.