Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Review: Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

 Giant birds are cool - let's go hunt monsters! Now with bonus EmotionsTM.

Untethered Sky is a brief, beautiful novella that packs in themes of family, love, loss and belonging, all under the wing (ha) of a compelling plot about training giant birds to fight monsters.

Ester is a trainee rukher in the royal mews, ready to move to the next stage and try to tame a newly captured wild roc. Once she completes the first, dangerous step in bonding with her charge, she'll be sent out to hunt the manticores that plague the countryside, and there is nothing she wants more in life than this. She's a young woman dedicated to a dream, surrounded by a precious few who understand her obsession, and holding deep in her heart the reason she left her family behind to follow this path. We watch her take those steps into the life she's dreamed of, and watch the relationships she develops with the people - and giant birds - around her as she grows into that life and her own self.

Untethered Sky is a perfect example of what a novella should be - beautifully self-contained, efficient and neat. Fonda Lee uses the shortness of the form as a boon, not a burden, so tightens in the focus on Ester, her perspective, her emotions and her struggles, leaving us deeply embedded in how she views her own life. It's not a book that throws the big drama at you right away, and not one for dramatic, sweeping emotional moments, but it has a quiet certainty that builds as you read, and leaves you in an emotional chokehold by the end of the story. All the more impressive when it does it in only 160 pages.

The viewpoint we get, then, is a very narrow one - just Ester, her two closest friends, and her bird, with brief moments and appearances from others as required. It's this triad of friendship, with the only people who can really understand what she cares about, that is the focus of the first half of the story, though we expand out a little as we go on. And again, that close focus is such a boon to this novel, because in so little space, we get such a good understanding of the three characters, how they interact, and the bittersweetness of this period of their relationships.

Because this isn't a happy fun novel of monster-hunting adventures. It's more a story about growing up, especially emotionally, and about losses of various different kinds. It's a story that's interested in the complexities of friendship dynamics, and how people can behave in perfectly reasonable ways that nonetheless hurt even those closest to them, and the guilt we can feel for our actions that drives us, no matter how unreasonable it may seem on the outside.

What is also does, which I found particularly interesting, is to tell it from the perspective of a character who could so, so easily have been a secondary character in a story told a slightly different way. Ester is great, and interesting, and a lovely, flawed person whose head we ride inside. But Ester is, in a certain light, not really the protagonist of the events we see. And so we're seeing only one particular side of these events, one particular slant on them.

And, of course, that's true of any story. But it is a well-managed thing that Lee has crafted her story such that it works, it stands alone and as itself, and is interested and balanced and complex... while at the same time, leaving us with a lingering feeling that this isn't the main event, or the close view. We're looking in at the window, instead of riding in the front seat, and that's fascinating. To play with the audience's perspective like that, and to do it without being heavy-handed or obvious, is such a delicate, skillful thing, and it was a joy to read.

Unsurprisingly for the author of The Green Bone Saga, the world Lee has created here is also fabulous. But again, the brilliance of it comes through in the fact that there are only 160 pages in which to do it. Lee has given us a world inspired by historic Persia, but she has mainly done so in little parts here and there, rather than focussing on it. We see satraps and fire rites, of a king and the manticores that plague his kingdom, but none of these are foregrounded, instead just moments that enrich the main story of Ester and her obsession and her life. It is surprisingly well-fleshed for how little actual page-time is dedicated to it, and once again it is a testimony to Lee's deftness in craft. 

It's also a setting we see less often in fantasy, and one which felt just as ripe for that extra flourish of the fantastical as any of the other historical settings we see more often.

If I have one critique of the story, it is that the foreshadowing at times is quite heavy-handed, and perhaps feels more weighty than the events that later happen actually deserve. That being said, logically, some of it is genuinely catastrophic from the characters' perspective, so the problem is more that, having had the foreshadowing, the actual events are not made to feel quite so dramatic in the moment for the reader. But it's a very minor gripe, and one that did not really spoil the narrative at all for me.

Over all, I think Lee has crafted a poignant, beautiful novella, rich in emotion, and one that exists in such a perfect, neat form that it could only ever have been as it is. Some stories do not need a full novel to explore, and are better for their brevity - we inhabit them for a moment, focussing on a small window or time, or a specific idea or emotion, without the core of the narrative or themes being muddied by wider context. This is precisely one of those stories, and I hope we see more standalone novellas from Fonda Lee in the future, if this is what they're going to look like.


The Math

Highlights: impossible to put down while reading, beautiful world-building, big sads

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky [Macmillan, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea