A junglepunk fantasy that centers the relationship of a married couple in a strong character-centered way.
In a world where cities, polities (ashrams) float above a dangerous world spanning jungle plagued by earthrages (earthquakes), the relationship between a Senior Architect, one of the central people responsible for keeping the city up and safe, and his wife, a would be archaeologist who believes study of the jungle and its inhabitants is not only a good idea, but necessary, proves to hold the fate of the ashram itself.
This is the story of Kritika H Rao’s The Surviving Sky.
When I first read about this book and its premise, I as a reader and reviewer got excited. Like arctic and polar climes, jungle climes are uncommon as major settings in SFF. For all of the diversity of settings in SFF, I have noticed an inordinate tendency toward various kinds of temperate climes as the norm, with more tropical locations as an exoticized (with all of the negative connotations of that) Other Place. Sometimes this avoids some of the very unpleasant connotations (c.f. The Rainwilds of Robin Hobb’s novels). Portions of the world of Martha Wells’ Raksuraverse also comes to mind, although I’ve always seen that as more temperate than actual jungle.
Stories that center a true jungle landscape and stand alone in exploring that are uncommon. Thoriaya Dyer’s Crossroads of Canopy series, though, comes to mind. And now, we can add The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao to that list. But not in the same way, as we shall see.
The center of the story is the floating sky ashram itself, Nakshar. It floats (for as long as it can) above a continuous jungle landscape that is dangerous at the best of times. The world that Nakshar and its sister cities float above is plagued by “Earthrages” (earthquakes), a violently disruptive and hostile landscape that reminded me of a different fantasy series with an extreme and unfriendly setting of a different sort: The Broken Earth series by N K Jemisin. One can draw a number of parallels between Jemisin’s work and Rao’s here. Jemisin’s lithologically wracked world, with science fantasy magic that is also Earth-aspected, parallels the setup here. Here we have a jungle world under constant stress, a landscape, a world where humans have to struggle against a world that is not friendly to them at all (this in turn can be thought of a metaphor for the climate change alterations to our own planet today).
And like The Broken Earth, the science fantasy magic-technology that the inhabitants use is tied directly to the matter of the world. Here, plants are the basis of science fantasy magitech that the inhabitants use in a very hostile world. Not just the transporting power of trajection which is certainly the most spectacular of the science fantasy plant based powers, healing, truth telling, and other abilities and powers are harnessed by the power of various plants. While the ashram Nakshar may float above the jungle (and the metaphor is not subtle), plants and the plants of the jungle are an everyday necessity for the people who live in the city.
But above the interesting worldbuilding, the world, the plant based science fantasy, the floating cities in the sky, and other strange and wondrous things to be found on this planet. (is it Earth? It’s not exactly clear!) , where this novel is really centered, what it really does and where it’s heart is, is in the characters, and particularly the two viewpoint characters, Iravan and Ahilya.
Let’s start with their relationship status. It is more than a cliché, it is a failure of imagination (or perhaps just realpolitik market trends) that young men and women, often fumbling toward a relationship with each other, is the default norm in a lot of SFF. The reasons why from a literary view are well trod and well understood. The Surviving Sky defies that worn well path through the jungle of its pages by presenting to us a married couple, a couple that has been through some years of marriage, with the joys and also very tempestuous fights and relationship ups and down that that entails. Iravan and Ahilya have not had an easy time of it in their marriage. Rao cleverly funnels that not only into character development and drama, but even makes that part of the plot and and problem.
The two characters each face a central problem, and in the end strong aspects of that problem are to be found in their relationship, and it is in the resolution of those problems with their relationship is the resolution to their problems, and the problem of the ashram. But it is not easy. Iravan, as a young and ambitious senior architect, overworks and finds it difficult to connect to his wife, as much as he loves her, who is interested in very different things. Ahilya craves a relationship with her husband, but their fights have caused issues, secrets, lies and betrayals of trust. But even as her husband tries to hold onto himself and his position, on the edge of being declared an Ecstatic, someone who has gone beyond the limits of what should be possible, to the danger of the community, and thus needs to be dealt with ruthlessly, one of the keys for Iravan to not be judged as Ecstatic and to keep himself whole is material bonds. That is to say, his wife.
I really enjoyed this bit of worldbuilding. In way too many magic systems, and systems of power and authority, magic powers are a ouroboros snake-eating tail justification and power and hierarchy in and of themselves. Or bonds and connections to others (looking at you, Star Wars) are judged to be at best distractions and speedbumps to true power and mastery. The world and science fantasy magic system of The Surviving Sky challenges that. In this world, material bonds, being connected to people, particularly a committed relationship like a marriage, is essential to an Architect not going overboard, becoming an Ecstatic. The material bonds, the relationships the architect has, are essential to their well being and the responsible and safe use of their power.
The revelations in the last act of the book come, I think, perhaps a little too fast and furious for its own good. For a novel that has been so character focused, with the two points of view of this married couple that while they are very different and have a lot of friction, really do love and care about each other, the worldbuilding revelatory drops come a little too sudden, leaden and heavy. I understand that this is the first in the series, and what is revealed by the end of the first book reminds me of the jaw dropper at the end of the first book, again, of The Broken Earth, where what what we, and the characters, thought they knew about the world and its setup is very much not what we thought at the beginning of the book. But it feels a little lumped in the backend and while there is character development and exploration throughout, the last portion of the book feels qualitatively different and I am not sure it is better for it.
That said, with its strong characterization and intriguing world, jungle landscape and science fantasy setup, The Surviving Sky is to my mind a very successful first novel. I look forward to more from the author.
Strong character focus
Science fantasy jungle setting
Reference: Rao, Kritika H., The Surviving Sky [Titan Books, 2023]
POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.