Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
Book of the Month
We all have favourite books. We have favourite books, favourite authors, favourite series. My favourites include The Lord of the Rings, The Night Circus, and most anything written by Steven Erikson and Ian C Esslemont.
Another of my favourites is Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book, The Final Empire. I love the whole series - specifically the first trilogy - but I think there was something truly special and magical about The Final Empire. It wasn’t his first published work, Elantris, and it was before he gained true notoriety as the man chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series, but in my opinion, it is his best work. It brought together all of the things that we have come to love about his writing – his intricate worldbuilding and magic systems, beautifully crafted characters, and captivating storylines which leave us breathless and wanting more.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that excited me as much as Sanderson’s The Final Empire, and certainly not one of his books - though I still think his Stormlight Archives is something of a magisterial masterpiece.
That might sound like something of a cliché, but Brandon Sanderson has returned to his very best with his new book Skyward.
The story of a young woman, Spensa, who has dreamt all her life about being a pilot - one of the brave men and women who protect their world from constant attack by an alien species known as the Krell. But Spensa has to fight through obstacle after obstacle to even get a shot at her dreams, before they all come crashing down around her.
The book’s Prologue is beautiful and sets up the difficulties Spensa must navigate through her life, but the opening chapters had me a little worried, because there were moments where I thought we were simply navigating a sci-fi Hogwarts, trading magic for piloting. However, almost as soon as the thought occurred to me, the author began breaking the tropes I was afraid were on the horizon. From that point onwards, for four nights in a row, I was hooked and struggled to put the book down.
Skyward is possibly the most captivating, inspirational, and aspirational book that Brandon Sanderson has ever written. There is a heart to this story, to each and every facet of the world and its inhabitants’ portrayals, that simply does not exist in modern literature today. While I could make a case that this world, and the story we find ourselves following, is grim and gritty, that is not the point of the story - the author doesn’t write with an intention of proving that he, too, can kill off three characters per eighteen paragraphs, or prove that humanity is truly the ultimate of all evils.
Instead, we are cast into a world that is difficult, facing a bleak outlook, and presented with a character who simply does not care about obeying the odds. Spensa is fun! I haven’t read a character this fun, entertaining, and relatable since Vin in The Final Empire. She represents the best of humanity and shows us what can be done if you keep pushing on, keep believing, and to hold others up as more important than yourself.
The cast of characters which surround Spensa are brilliant – plain and simple. From the grumpy ex-pilot who teaches to the jerk pilot who literally ends up being called Jerkface, nothing is what it seems for long. There is depth – true, navigable depth to each character - and the trope which surrounds so many outcast-characters is much less important in the face of reality. Even Spensa’s tacit antagonist through the entire book is more than she appears - representative of more than a two-dimensional cut-out of a disapproving, vengeful adult.
While Spensa’s character and her growth through the book is the most important thing to strike me about Skyward, I truly loved the slow unravelling mystery of the story – and the questions still left unanswered. This is not so much a story based on contrived twists and turns, but rather one which relies on, at times tentative revelations that suggest one thing, or then another, before you realise you really need to just finish the book to find out what is really going on. The dramatic tension is not ratcheted up simply to create a false reaction in the reader’s but, instead, Sanderson tells a story that unfolds as would be expected of the characters and world he has created. It is realistic without being commonplace and relies on relatable emotions rather than relatable situations and dangers. It is realistic in that people put their lives on the line and sometimes die, but not to the point where death is easy, or flippant, or expected.
Skyward captivated me unlike any other book has in the past decade. It not only left me wanting more, but left me concerned for people who, in my mind at least, truly exist and who are beautifully special. Skyward is Brandon Sanderson’s greatest work in years, possibly ever, and reminds us of his capacity to inspire us to aspire to be more, to be better – to claim the stars.
Joshua S Hill, 10/10
When you’re young, it’s easy to see things in black and white. Concepts are valued as absolutes. Ice cream is good. Crime is bad. Fight for what’s right, and never run away. But with age comes wisdom and nuance, and suddenly your perceptions aren’t as easily defined. Coming to terms with these realizations can be challenging, especially without the support of family or friends. This is one of the more interesting themes explored by Brandon Sanderson’s new sci-fi epic Skyward: Claim the Stars, book one of the Skyward series. Self-described as “Top Gun” meets “How to Train Your Dragon,” it also shows its influences from Ender’s Game as well as “Flight of the Navigator.” In other words, it’s an exciting mix of mystery, adventure, and discovery with an ending that promises more thrilling material in the books ahead.
Spensa, a.k.a. “call sign: Spin” is the daughter of a traitor. This is what everyone has called her since she was a little girl. But Spin doesn’t believe a word of it and has a chip on her shoulder about proving everyone wrong. Years ago, her planet’s above-ground base was attacked by the faceless, mysterious Krell. Her father, a respected pilot, was said to have ran away when the fighting became too intense. His own flight team was forced to shoot him down to send a message to the other pilots: stay and fight, or all will be lost. Spin is the only one who has stuck by her dead father’s side over the years, fighting or threatening anyone who badmouths her family name. Branded as an outcast, the only future Spin sees for herself is to follow in her father’s footsteps, pass the flight school entrance exam, and become the best pilot in the fleet. Yet, old grudges die hard, and there are those who want to make sure that Spin goes nowhere near a ship. But Spin discovers something that could change the tides of war and either save or doom the last survivors on this arid planet...
In prototypical fashion, Sanderson’s world-building is one of the most interesting aspects to the story. He ekes out information at a steady rate as to not overwhelm the reader with massive info dumps and maintains an air of mystery as to how the circumstances of Spin’s people came to be. Skyward has all the hallmarks of a Sanderson story: mysterious prologue, likeable protagonists, curious past civilizations, new technologies, and the looming threat of a warring race. I was often reminded of Mistborn’s ‘metal burning’ magic when Skyward’s new tech abilities were showcased. Sanderson has created a system of rules for a ship’s dogfighting technology, then immediately dives into all the various strategies of how to best employ it, pushing its capabilities ever further and testing the boundaries of how far this tech can function. It’s always a pleasure spending time inside Brandon’s mind as he creates a new playground of rules and takes his characters for a ride through unchartered territories.
In addition to some of the themes discussed above, this story also explores the nature of identity, both human and artificial. Identity can be defined by how some human characters act and think, but this also applies to an AI struggling to determine whether it can create new ideas on its own. Following these character arcs helped ground the story between tense scenes of battle training and hidden agendas, and I appreciated how the story sometimes slowed down to concentrate on the consequences of our characters’ decisions. And these consequences are often dire: the violence is hardly graphic, but its repercussions are felt heavily throughout the story.
Skyward: Claim the Stars is an easy book to recommend. It contains all the main characteristics of a Sanderson novel from a writer at the top of his game. Some might consider this book YA, though I was just as engrossed as I would have been with any other of his novels. Above all, this novel is a ton of fun, and it sets up the story for some excellent ideas to explore in the next volume. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long, as Brandon has shared that the sequel was just submitted to the publisher. I’ve grown quite fond of the characters in this story and am curious to unravel its mysteries in the series ahead.
Adam Weller, 8.8/10
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