It’s long been a truism in science fiction and fantasy that the world is a character—sometimes, indeed, the central character, against which humans and other beings recede into insignificance. Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe—the trilogy comprising Updraft (2015), Cloudbound (2016), and this September’s Horizon—doesn’t make the humans insignificant, but thanks to the wild, weird scope of its world, the world looms large in the reader’s consciousness—as large as the giant bone spires, high above the clouds, that are home to Wilde’s characters.
In this world, people live in giant bone spires. They hollow them out and call them towers, so far above the ground that this society has even forgotten what the ground is. The towers are connected by bridges—some of them, at least—fragile things of rope and hide. But most people travel between the towers by unpowered flight. They use wings, constructs of leather and bone, and hunt beasts of the air—some of which are both dangerous and invisible. Their histories are oral, not written: they remember the past and their laws in songs, not in books.
The flying is, by the way, really awesome. Especially when people are learning to fly by night, or are fighting in the air, or are battling the invisible “skymouths”—giant invisible sky-jellyfish, basically, with tentacles—and desperately struggling to stay aloft. Because falling below the clouds is death—or so they’ve always thought.
This is a fragile society, with very little margin for error. It’s also a society in conflict and in flux—as we see in the events of Updraft, and then in Cloudbound where the social conflict comes to the fore with a bunch of people acting from good motives, some people acting from selfish motives, and in Horizon, which brings to the fore the slowly growing realisation on the part of a few people that the bone spires are dying, and that they need to figure something out or their entire society might die with them. In Updraft, the conflict is centred around the Singers, the secrets they are keeping and the tremendous amount of power they have in this society. In Cloudbound, with the power and the moral authority of the Singers broken, we see people scrambling to fill that power vacuum, and the consequences of looking for scapegoats, and acting out of fear and revenge.
That’s the world. Equal parts stark and human, dangerous and humane, cool and weird. What about the characters?
In Updraft, we first meet Kirit Densira, a young woman who can’t wait to be allowed to fly solo—one of the markers of adulthood in her society. But her plans for how her future is going to go are disrupted when she’s recruited by the Singers, the secretive group that controls the laws and teaches the history of the towers. When she discovers that the history she’s learned is filled with secrets, secrets that affect the present, she sets out to bring the truth to light—a decision that leads to enormous upheaval in her society. That upheaval might be necessary, but it’s still painful… and in Cloudbound, we see the consequences play out.
Nat Densira is Cloudbound’s main character, an apprentice politician and Kirit’s childhood friend. Kirit’s actions and Nat’s choices, though, have led to an estrangement between the two of them: Nat trusts his tower’s leaders, who’ve decided that the Singers should be scapegoats for the towers’ collective problems. Kirit, on the other hand, has already seen a lot of leadership’s lies and manipulation. It takes Nat a good bit longer to become disillusioned, but when he does…
Well, that’s when the real trouble starts.
I want to link here to (Hugo-Award-winning-author) Amal El-Mohtar’s December 2016 Lightspeed review of Cloudbound, which does the book a lot more justice than I can. Updraft and Cloudbound are love-letters to engineering, and powerful explorations of a society in flux, on the cusp of change or destruction: stories about trust and community, betrayal and the difficult, dangerous project of building consensus that leads towards a future that most people can both live with and live in—rejecting easy lies and comforting truths and manipulation designed to keep powerful people in power.
Also, cool shit, revolution, engineering (did I mention the really cool engineering?) and hide-and-seek with survival as the prize in the murky depths of the clouds around the bone spires. And the question of what the bone spires actually are, and how the towers can survive, hangs in the balance.
Wilde’s Horizon is out September 26th. I’m really looking forward to finding out how Kirit, Nat, and the other Bone Universe characters are going to save themselves and their people. And seeing the world below the clouds.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.