Skyward by Brandon Sanderson (Skyward #1)

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.

Until now.

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

Skyward is the freshest and most exciting science-fiction novel I have read in a very long time.

There is a great deal to talk about here because there is a great deal Brandon Sanderson does right. Well, he does everything right really. I do not have a single criticism. The plot is fantastic. The world building is totally excellent. And, as ever, Sanderson gives little away at the start. He slowly builds the layers through the plot and reveals how extensive this world is towards the end. The small little universe the characters have been occupying is part of a much greater expanse.
So, this felt like a beginning to a much larger story that has epic potential. Another reviewer called it a prelude, and I am inclined to agree. Sanderson is clever with his storytelling; he always has been. He likes to create illusions for his readers. He likes to make you imagine a world from a certain perspective and then reveal the truth of the situation as time goes on. His stories will never follow the linear path he makes you believe they are going down. And, for me, that’s his greatest strength as a writer.

“People need stories, child. They bring us hope, and that hope is real. If that's the case, what does it matter whether people in them actually lived?”

I love this quote. And this story is full of little gems like this one. Central to it all is a remarkably strong young woman who drove the story forward with her unmatched desire to become a pilot, protect her home and see the stars. She is funny and she is weirdly cool. She grew up on stories of epic adventure and has imagined herself the heroine of her own quest, a quest to prove that her father was not a coward and a traitor. She does not want to be branded with such a false legacy.

And, as I said before, the story would never quite go in the direction it appeared to be going in. The reveals behind her legacy are feats of storytelling prowess. The seemingly ordinary (yet still engaging) novel about fighter pilots develops into an imaginative and mystical exploration of the human soul and its connection with space and the stars. Although technically young adult, Sanderson captures the stark beauty of human ingenuity here and its will to overcome the most insane odds through nothing but perseverance. There are many adult themes here and some of them quite dark too.

“You get to choose who you are. Legacy, memories of the past, can serve us well. But we cannot let them define us. When heritage becomes a box instead of an inspiration, it has gone too far.”

It would be remiss of here not to mention the star-ship, M-bot, the ship with a soul and an obsession with mushrooms. And this idea reminded me of the ships from Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, the idea that a vessel can bond with its owner and together they can achieve extraordinary feats through magic and a telepathic connection. Sanderson only touches on this here as the story comes to a close, though no doubt this will be explored further in the sequels.

Thank you, Brandon Sanderson, for your persistently excellent storytelling. I can genuinely say that it has been over a year since I enjoyed reading a book this much.

Skyward is remarkable in every way, it is so special, and it is easily my favourite Sanderson novel I have read so far.
Sean Barrs, 10/10

Even though I am not one of the people who regard every single thing Sanderson has written as an instant classic, there is no denying I’ve enjoyed many of his books, and consider some (Stormlight, Warbreaker and the first Mistborn novel), to be truly amazing. So when my lady suggested Skyward as our next cooperative read, I was definitely interested, particularly because I’m always up for a ripping good space adventure, and was interested to see what Sanderson would make of an entirely new genre.

All her life Spensa has wanted nothing more than to fly, to join the Defiant Defence Force and protect the human settlers on the planet Detritus against the alien Krell. Unfortunately, thanks to her father’s legacy as a coward, her chances of actually reaching the flight academy seem slim. But Spensa is a warrior, and whatever obstacles prejudice, bureaucracy or old grudges put in her way, she is determined to reach for the sky as her father did.

When chance, and her father’s old wing mate give Spensa the opportunity to enter the academy, Spensa grabs it with both hands. Yet, there is more to being a pilot than just quick reflexes, and more to defending Detritus than simply flying. Yet as Spensa faces loss, friendship, rivalry and obstruction, there are deeper secrets to be explored, like the mysterious old star-ship Spensa discovers, or the truth about her father’s last battle, since Spensa must learn that the ultimate challenge of any warrior is to master herself.

One of the things that everyone praises in Sanderson’s work, is his world building, and here he shows himself just as able to create a fully realised and complex society on an alien planet in the future, as those found on any of the magical worlds in the Cosmere. From various job assignments to eating of algae wraps and a sky full of debris and old technology, to the attitudes towards pilots and the military in a society always on the edge of destruction, as usual with Sanderson this is a book where the world itself is one of the most distinct characters. In particular, I love the fact that he shows us both the society’s supposed prevailing attitude, and how many loopholes that attitude has, for example that their creed of equality still allows for the wealthy to buy their way into privileged positions, or the nasty, self-justified prejudice directed at Spensa and her family due to her father’s supposed cowardice.

Speaking of Spensa, one problem in Sanderson’s writing, has been a tendency to reuse character types, from ladies with an academic bent and a knack for politics despite occasionally tactless moments, to snarky martial underdog male characters with a leader complex. Not that these characters are essentially bad, indeed Stormlight’s protagonists are some of the best written I’ve seen, however when a character of a completely unrelated novel feels essentially like a pale copy of a previous book’s protagonist, I find it does rather take me out of the story, something which unfortunately has happened several times in some of Sanderson’s other books.

Fortunately, even though Spin has a little of the snarky warrior about her; especially in her use of overblown barbarian insults, she has more than enough personality of her own to make her highly distinct; something which is further helped by Sophie Aldred’s masterful narration of the audiobook, (after all, any Doctor Who fan will know this isn’t the first tough, scrappy young girl Aldred has played). In particular, I like the way Spin grows and changes throughout the story, and whilst we’re always on her side, there are many occasions (such as her undermining Skyward’s flight leader just because she dislikes him), when Spin doesn’t always behave perfectly.

To balance Spin, the supporting characters are also all given more than enough personality, and some, such as the gentle, ditsy sniper Kimelyn become beloved in their own right. Even the book’s main antagonist, the autocratic and blinkered general Ironsides, still has enough nuance to be believable, even if not actually sympathetic.

I particularly loved the way Sanderson dealt with prejudice, and the faux reasonable justifications given for keeping Spin out of the loop, or putting simple obstacles in her way, such as not allowing her to stay on the base with her fellow trainees, and of course the fact that even though one person is prepared to stick his neck out for Spin and give her a chance, this does not communicate to universal acceptance either, indeed reading this with my lady, both of us being visually impaired, much of these attitudes were disturbingly familiar, especially when those prejudices were given a supposed biological justification.

Another area where Sanderson receives constant praise is his depiction of magical systems and combat. Here, once again we see a ship combat system worked with care, detail and precise execution (I would be willing to bet money Sanderson is a gamer). Thus, whilst much of the book concerns Spin’s experiences in flight school, just as we see her improve at the physical act and reflexes involved in flying, so too do we learn more of the weapons, tactics and capabilities of the ships the pilots fly, and their Krell enemies, letting us follow every space flight, from holographic training mission to deadly battle, in full detail. With the possibility of losing a beloved character always on the horizon, this makes for some pretty tense and engaging action sequences, indeed whilst Sanderson’s basic writing style is definitely more prosaic than poetic, the pace of events and introduced elements was more than enough to keep my attention and provide a great atmosphere for the story.

Unfortunately, for all the high action, great world building and three dimensional characters, the book’s plot does suffer from being a little too predictable. From the prologue in which Spin’s father almost dooms himself by bidding his daughter to reach for the sky, to Spin’s finding a superior star-ship with an annoying, if friendly AI which she will inevitably be flying into battle before the end of the book. Admittedly, Sanderson does try to mix tropes up, for example with Spin’s Draco Malfoy like rival Jurgen; who even sweeps into the classroom flaunting his own wealth and henchmen, and who actually turns out not to be quite the jerk-face Spin believes him to be. However even here, Sanderson still seems more to be switching predictable character tropes, particularly when he draws out such clichés as the poor protagonist learning that the rich character feels trapped by their social position, or all of the emphatic talk of pilots never ejecting inevitably leading to a situation in which Spin must eject. Indeed, even on those occasions where Spin seemed to be heading on a course that would get her booted straight out of the academy, I felt little sense of actual jeopardy, since I knew she had to be in there for the climax, though this is another reason why the likable supporting characters, from the self-righteous but well meaning FM, to the laconic Ned were such a major plus, since even though we could be sure (simply by the fact that the book was in first person), that Spin survives, the same could not be true of everyone else. It’s very much to Sanderson’s credit that though the book features a lot of battles and the occasional character death, there are no faceless redshirts.

My one really major issue in the book is the plotline concerning Spin’s supposed “genetic defect”. I initially really liked the idea of there being some sort of genetic proclivity associated with Spin’s father's supposed cowardice, particularly concerning the prejudice against Spin. Soon enough however, it becomes clear this “defect”, is actually a special power, and at least part of the bad attitude towards those who possess it is born out of jealousy. Throughout most of the book, Spin makes an appealing protagonist since she is someone who gets to be an awesome pilot through practice, dedication and good teaching, indeed in Spin it seemed we were finally getting away from the idea of people who are “born special”, and back to a protagonist who can just be genuinely inspiring. Had the defect been a real defect, something which actually could affect Spin negatively, that would’ve been all the better, since seeing your protagonist triumph at what they do despite a possible disability and external prejudice would be just plane fantastic, especially with how realistically that prejudice is written, and how the defect ties into the truth about Spin’s father. Unfortunately though, it actually turns out in this particular genetic hand Spin has been given, the ace she thought counts as one actually counts as eleven. Whilst this doesn’t exactly put a lie to all of Spin’s self-doubt; self-doubt not helped by others’ attitudes, at the same time it is too easy an answer, and one which furthermore, almost makes a mockery of the actual dedication spin shows, or her determination to become a pilot whatever others might think.

The book’s climax is well paced, action heavy, and not quite spoiled by the predictable appearance of the cavalry. On the one hand, I liked how much of an ensemble the final battle felt, with different characters showing off their strengths. On the other hand, the fact that Spin was able to save the day expressly because of her individual specialness did not sit as well with me. Indeed, it’s interesting that where in Star Wars Luke Skywalker survived a similar battle due to his ability to put faith in something outside of himself, Spin’s final discovery of her special power was entirely self-directed. Whilst of course her self-doubt and growth during the book meant I was still on Spin’s side (at least she isn’t as arrogant as some other superheroes), at the same time, an affirmation of the main character’s awesomeness, right in front of those nasty authority figures who have been in the way, smacks a little too much of wish fulfilment.

Skyward is nothing short of a roller coaster ride. It moves quickly enough to keep your teeth rattling, flips you up into the sky, occasionally takes you down to the ground only to flip you up again, and never quite lets your heart rate slow to zero. Yes, you might be able to see all of the loops and curves and twists coming from the other side of the track, and you can be sure the car won’t be leaving the rails any time soon, but that doesn’t stop it being a wild ride all the same, and one which is highly worth taking.
Dark, 8.6/10

10/10 Skyward captivated me unlike any other book has in the past decade

Reviews by and Adam Weller and Sean Barrs

2 positive reader review(s) for Skyward

2 positive reader review(s) in total for the Skyward series

Brandon Sanderson biography

Skyward reader reviews

from Great Britain

Sanderson honestly gets better and better with every book. This is the first book of Sanderson's which I have read set in a future world and I was very impressed. The story was exceptionally gripping, the world rich, and the plot concluded very nicely indeed. I found the descriptions of the aerial battles to be especially detailed and easy to follow. Perhaps my only qualm is that I found the main character to be a tad OTT and unrealistic at times (if you have read it you will understand). This has little to no effect on the reading quality might I add.
9/10 ()

from USA

In the Novel, Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, A world is constantly under attack, a father’s reputation for being a coward might ruin her dream of being a pilot. A young child named Spensa, who had always wanted to be a pilot. Spensa wanted to be like all the brave men and women that risk their lives every day to protect Alta base from an alien race known as the Krell. Her life has planned a course the makes her have to face various obstacles to have her dream of being a pilot.
10/10 ()

9.5/10 from 3 reviews

All Brandon Sanderson Reviews