Here’s what you need to know if you haven’t had the absolute pleasure of reading fiction from Fonda Lee: She can write her damn heart out. And she will rip yours out in the process and you will say, “Thank you, Fonda Lee, you have earned this.” This was my experience (and many readers’ experiences) with the Jade City trilogy, and it was my experience again with her latest, Untethered Sky—a lean, vicious, beautiful and bittersweet story of grief, loss, and rage.
Untethered Sky is a novella that explores the relationships between mankind and the animals we love and respect, and that tenuous trust needed to command that which you may never truly understand. It is a gripping and swift read, much like the massive and uncanny rocs found in its pages. And like those same wild beings, this novella is both brutal and powerful, delivering a story as only Fonda Lee can: with care, precision, and speed, so fast you won’t even realize the claw in your heart until too late.
Ester is a young girl when her mother and her little brother are murdered by a manticore—monstrous, lion-like, bloodthirsty beasts that plague the borders and lands of the kingdom. It is an epidemic of ferocity that can only be contended with by beings equally fierce and dangerous: the rocs of the King’s Royal Mews. As her father retreats into himself, losing himself to the grief for his beloved wife and a son he found more favorable than Ester, she becomes obsessed with one thing only: joining the Mews, mastering a roc of her own, and not just proving her worth to her father, but making sure what happened to her family happens to no one again.
This is where the true heart of Untethered Sky takes flight, and where Lee’s ability to laser-focus in on how worldbuilding and character intertwine really pays off. Because the final test to pass is to build, develop, and then master a relationship with a young roc, stolen from its nest and dropped into the dark. This is not a world of telepathy between beings, nor is there any bridge of empathy Ester can walk to better understand her roc, Zahra. There are just behavioral tactics that Ester employs in those first dark weeks, when she must remain in the enclosed cage with Zahra, feeding her, attuning her to her human voice, and doing everything in her power to convince the young predator that she is her master, not her prey. It is a microcosm that speaks to the nature of the conflict these riders and the kingdom find themselves in, and showcases the extreme sacrifice and danger demanded to combat a larger threat.
From these first tense moments alone, Lee continually ramps up the tension, bit by bit, as she illustrates that the life of these trainers and their monstrous birds are not magical, nor are they miraculous; the only miracle is the line Ester and her fellow fliers must walk, constantly. Lee never lets the reader forget what humans have always wished to: The wild things of this world, for as much as we believe we could ever connect with them, will always be wild. And it is luck, as much as it is training, that keeps them from lashing out.
All of these factors combine and clash as Ester and Zahra grow together, their bond developing and deepening as each learns how to work best with the other, proving themselves again and again, until the chance to hunt those worst of beasts, the manticores, is given. When unleashed, Lee showcases just how formidable Ester and Zahra can be together. But subtle pressures begin to mount; friendships and romance, rage and vengeance, government and politics, each exerting in ways vast and tiny in Ester’s journey. In the end, as much as we’re rooting for her success, for her to finish her hunt and for her and Zahra to finally prove themselves as the apex predators of the sky, it is here that Lee takes every thread of emotion, worldbuilding, and character and in the final pages, brings them all together in a crashing crescendo that shows why she’s one of the best in the business.
Untethered Sky is a brisk novella with a bite, sinking its talons into unsuspecting readers too lulled by the standard tale of beasts and people working together for a common good. This is not one of those, but ultimately asks through that tenuous, dangerous, and yes, sometimes wondrous relationship: Can you ever fully trust a wild thing to cede its wildness and be surprised when it acts as nature intended? And if, through terrible trials and heartbreak, you become that wild thing, what will bring you back to humanity, if you ever do? Fonda Lee delivers, time and time again, and Untethered Sky is no exception. Get ready for a beautiful, fierce, bittersweet flight.
Untethered Sky is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.