Picture a city that’s weirder than China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, stranger even then Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morkpork, one that makes Gondor look like a collection of McMansions. Chances are that what you’ve pictured, with your feeble imagination, is nothing compared to Fran Wilde’s Updraft. With her first novel, Wilde has created one of the most inventive settings in fantasy — a nameless city in the sky, comprised of towers made of bone. Its inhabitants connect with each other using bridges of skin and sinew, or fly on wings made of silk. They are menaced by, no kidding, giant invisible flying squid, called skymouths. It is a landscape and culture of fascinating complexity.
Where it all breaks down a little is the plot. Other reviewers have praised the narrative for its complexity but… Well, see for yourselves. A young woman — our heroine, Kirit Densira — is on the eve of her coming-of-age ceremony when she discovers that she has a mysterious power to control the skymouths that plague her people. Her coming-of-age ceremony is disrupted by a secretive leadership caste known as the Singers, and as a result, she is prevented from earning her wings. Because of her power, she is recruited in order to become a Singer herself — and learns that the order hides a corrupt secret at its heart.
It might just be me, but it all sounds a bit rote, doesn’t it? A variation on a theme that’s been deployed in books from The Giver to Hunger Games. No matter how the plot twisted and turned, it reminded me of a dance whose steps I already knew. Granted, the whole thing is nicely paced, and Kirit is a well-thought-out, believable protagonist. I also applaud the lack of a love triangle or indeed any romantic subplot, which would have seemed a bit obligate given how much else is going on.
In sum, I’d almost say that reading about the setting of Updraft and learning about the details and nuances of its world makes the plot of secondary importance. Also, Wilde leaves many of the city’s central mysteries as an open question, leaving plenty of room for sequels. One would hope that further narrative outings are more equal to the setting.