Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review - Updraft by Fran Wilde

Short review: Kirit just wants to earn her wings and join her mother as a trader, but a chance event derails those plans and puts her onto a collision course with the rulers of the City.

In the City's air
Flying on silk and bone wings
Beware the skymouths

Full review: Updraft is the debut novel of Fran Wilde that tells the story of Kirit, a young woman living in the City as part of a civilization above the clouds, who dreams of becoming a trader like her mother Ezarit. This book maps Kirit's journey from child to adult as she navigates the complicated web of customs and traditions that dominate the lives of her countrymen, an endeavor at which she is not always particularly successful. Along the way, she discovers a tale of loss, betrayal, corruption, and sacrifice that will change the City forever, and could very well end up killing her.

In the City, wings mean freedom. Most of the citizens live in towers, residing in the great tiered structures that grow high above the clouds, with the wealthy and privileged occupying the upper tiers, and the poor and disfavored relegated to the lower ones. The only way to move between the towers is to strap on wings and fly (or, more rarely, walk across one of the relatively few bridges that connect some of the towers). Those who cannot fly - the young, the infirm, or the outcast - are essentially confined to their home towers unless they can find someone to carry them from place to place. At the outset of Updraft, Kirit is on the brink of being able to take her wingtest and gain her wingmark, which amounts to a license to fly on her own and symbolizes a citizen's step into adulthood. Kirit's mother Ezarit is a skilled and famous trader who wings her way from tower to tower making deals and returning with the profits for the benefit of her home tower Densira. Kirit's greatest ambition is to win her wingmarks so that she can join her mother as an apprentice and gain fortune and renown for making her own deals.

All of these dreams are derailed when Kirit stays out on the family balcony just a little too long during a skymouth attack, both breaking the law and revealing an unusual power. This event changes the course of her life, and is the fundamental turning point of the book. This event also begins the process of revealing how Wilde's fictional world works, and how its reality differs from Kirit's perceptions. Kirit finds that her display of power has drawn the attention of Wik, one of the enigmatic Singers who effectively rule over the City as a whole, forming a power over the individual towers that binds the entire civilization of Updraft together. Because Kirit refuses Wik's offer to join the Singers (desiring instead to join her mother as a trader), the weight of the laws of the tower falls upon her. Kirit survives the skymouth attack, which is viewed as "lucky" by her fellow tower denizens, but as the powers that govern the towers and the city turn against her, she gets the tag of "unlucky", showing just how fickle popular support can be. Serving her sentence alongside Nat, her oldest friend who seems to have been punished in order to place pressure on Kirit to accede to Wik's demands, Kirit still believes in the fundamental fairness of the system she lives within, and looks forward to her wingtest, which she believes will result in her freedom from restrictions.

But the core story of Updraft is that unaccountable power inevitably results in a corrupt system, and the Singers rig the wingtest to deny Kirit her wingmarks even though she passes all four parts of the test. In a display of power and arrogance, the Singers don't even try to rig the individual scores, but rather simply assert that despite her passing all elements of the test, Kirit is not sufficiently capable to be trusted with her wingmarks. Nat also fails his test, but to highlight the unfairness, the daughter of a wealthy and politically important family in Densira tower passes, despite doing more poorly overall than Nat did. Enraged by the unfairness, Nat and Kirit go rogue, setting out to attack the Spire, the central fortress where all of the Singers dwell. This, of course, ends badly for the two, and Kirit finds herself imprisoned within the Spire and forced to join the Singers, where she learns that the world is not at all what she thinks it is, and the reader finds themselves given a first hand tour of the politics and corruption at the heart of the City.

The story pushes Kirit further and further into the heart of power in the City, revealing to her the awful and deadly secrets that have rotted away the core of both the Singers and the City itself. Wilde manages to combine Kirit's personal coming-of-age story with the political maneuverings going on around her by revealing new sources of corruption and deception as part of Kirit's training. Some of the revelations are subtle - such as the differences in the songs sung by the denizens of the towers and the residents of the Spire - while others hit the reader with the force of a heavy hammer blow - such as the terrible secret hidden in the lower levels of the Spire, and what the Singers do with that secret. Step by step, Kirit is drawn into the hidden world of the Singers, and the reader is drawn in with her, with each new piece of shady crookedness explained away, making the next that much easier to accept, until outrages that Kirit has excused with polite fictions are brought home to her on a personal level and the entire rotten edifice comes crashing down.

The story of Updraft is more complex than merely being a case of a corrupt system that must be opposed. Kirit is presented with multiple possible role-models, each with their own vision of how the future of the City should be determined, ranging from the pure power politics of Rumul, to the blind adherence to tradition of Sellis, to Wik's determination to reform the Singers from within, to Nat's call for open rebellion. All of these possible avenues offer Kirit benefits, and all offer profound drawbacks, making every one of her decisions fraught with peril, and weighty with import. Among the most powerful pull is that of tradition, a phrase often invoked by City-dwellers who have imbued it with an almost sacred meaning. Every Singer faction, and most of the non-Singers Kirit encounters, view tradition as being of paramount importance in their lives, and it is wielded almost as a weapon to silence dissent and, in many cases, to protect secrets. But as the story makes clear, such adherence to tradition makes corruption possible: Many dark and underhanded developments are hidden from public view because of the ritual tradition of silence: Only those allowed to may speak, and then only on approved subjects. Following the rules means lying to your fellow citizens at the behest of the powers that be. Much of the book revolves around Kirit struggling against her own upbringing to find a clear path to dealing with the problems she faces, navigating what are, for her and for her society, essentially uncharted waters.

In 2016 Updraft was nominated for both the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the Andre Norton Award, making it the first book to achieve this double honor. Because of its teenage protagonist, this book is likely to be viewed as a young adult novel (hence the Andre Norton Award), but readers should be warned that the society depicted within its pages is violent and bloody. Legal and political disputes are settled by combat, often to the death. Human sacrifices are made to appease the City's apparent wrath. One of the means by which an apprentice in the Spire can achieve the status of Singer is to accept a challenge made by a tower-dweller and then either kill or maim them. Even the "friendly" sports contests of the City-dwellers involve taking to the air with knives and shards of glass strapped to their feet and slashing at one another. But this simply adds one more layer to the world-building of the book, showing the reader that the City, whose denizens fancy themselves to be much more civilized and genteel than their ancestors, is actually an almost horrific place filled with appalling levels of brutality and an almost casual attitude towards death.

Updraft does have a couple of weaknesses: With so much going on in the story, some elements seem to get something of a short shrift - for example, Kirit's mother Ezarit more or less vanishes from the story after the first third or so, and as a character was never really developed much more than "really good trader" to begin with. Some of the plot developments seem just a little bit serendipitous, as almost everyone Kirit comes into contact with outside of the Spire seems to have some connection to the conspiracy that drives the events in the book. There is also a somewhat predictable quality to many of the novel's "plot twists", Plus, there are tantalizing questions that are never answered: What is below the City? The denizens of the towers refer to the "Rise" as the seminal historic event that gave birth to their current way of life, but where did they rise from? The City is alive and seems to have desires, but what is it exactly, and what does it really want? And so on. Overall though, Updraft is well-crafted and engaging enough that the handful of weak plot elements remain minor issues, and after reading the book I have sufficient faith in the author that I believe the various questions about the world itself will be answered in some future volume.

At its heart, Updraft is a well-written bildungsroman that laces political intrigue throughout Kirit's journey from adolescence to adulthood, all supported by strong world-building. With lessons taught by a myriad of mentors both beneficent and malign, Kirit learns, grows, adapts, and eventually chooses her path, and by doing so, chooses the path for the City and its denizens. Despite being packed with Kirit's training and a moderately complex volume of political maneuvering, the book remains fairly fast-paced and action-packed, which seems perfect for a story in which the characters swoop and glide through the air upon wings of silk, bone, and sinew. In the final analysis, Updraft is a book that has a little bit of just about everything and mixes them all together into a stew that most genre fiction fans will likely find quite tasty.

2015 Andre Norton Award Winner: Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
2017 Andre Norton Award Winner: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

List of Andre Norton Award Winners

2016 Nebula Award Nominees

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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