Monday, August 17, 2015

Updraft - Fran Wilde

Updraft is, at heart, a novel about relationships. It’s about a young woman, and her desire for self understanding. It’s about how she works with others, and how they shape her. It’s about truth, and power. That it takes place in a world where the cities are towers of eternally growing bone, and where learning to fly is as much of a necessity as learning to walk…these things are an added bonus.

The world of Updraft is fascinating, and I’m not sure we’ve seen something quite like it before. The setting is the aforementioned bone towers. These bizarre structures are soaring well above the clouds. People live within hollowed out parts of the bones, a whole society locked within these confines. As the towers soar higher, the hollow spaces gradually close, leaving citizens constantly on a slow migration upward.

Though the people are locked within their towers, they also have the capacity for travel, crafting wings which allow them to take to the sky, to visit the rest of their ever-rising world. At the same time, however, this sort of travel is not without risks. Unseen, unknowable terrors lurk within the skies, and are more than happy to reward a lack of caution with an unpleasant demise.

That’s the setting in broad strokes. But the author has clearly laboured long and lovingly over her world. The whole thing feels fleshed out, feels real. From the weights that are attached to lawbreakers as a punishment, through the duty-bound terrors of the central Spire, into the mysteries of a Skymouth …everything hangs together perfectly. The city of towers feels like the real thing, and the way that the society is built around the requirements of living in the sky is utterly believable, and thoroughly immersive.  The reader is quickly absorbed into a new, skybound reality, with its own vocabulary and social mores, its own customs and social expectations.

Then, of course, we’re given a protagonist already submerged in that world, and are given the opportunity to follow her journey, to see if she will sink, or soar.  In this instance, our protagonist is Kirit Densira, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. As she prepares to take her flight test, which will allow her to travel between towers, she discovers that she has an unusual talent – and quite quickly afterwards, discovers that the mysterious, duty-driven and often callous governance of the towers, The Spire, keep an eye out for just that sort of talent. Things quickly spiral from there.

Kirit is a great central character; she’s highly competent, but easily frustrated, entirely believable as a driven adolescent, trying to figure out just who she is, as her world is turned upside-down in front of her eyes. Wilde never lets her character wander off-piste – every skill is one gained or strengthened by hard work, each moment of insight surrounded by the context that brought it to the fore. Kirit isn’t flawless – there’s some moments of stubbornness that had me wincing, for example – but does feel very much alive.

In a way, it’s a shame that the focus is on Kirit as much as it is. She’s our viewpoint onto other characters – her somewhat secretive mother, her platonic relationship with her best friend, her fraught interactions with the authority of the Spire. There’s a lot of great possibilities here, and where Kirit interacts with the supporting cast, we can see their potential. It would have been nice if they’d had a little more room to come into their own, rather than being foils for the protagonist – but this is Kirit’s story, and so the focus remains on her.

The plot…well, I won’t spoil it, but there’s some good stuff here. Kirit’s journey into adulthood is filled with twists and turns, with conspirators with unclear motives, with red herrings, and dark mysteries. There’s also some actual fighting, in the air, with wings. The pacing is solid, and it kept me turning pages all the while; the story benefits from the solid world building, keeping the reader interested as we’re introduced to new places, new people, new modes of thought. There’s a couple of missteps, and areas where I would have loved to have seen a more in-depth explanation, but overall, it’s a riveting read.

Updraft is, at the end of the day, a well done journey of a protagonist from adolescence to adulthood, surrounded by mystery and mayhem, and wrapped in a fantastically different world. It’s certainly worth picking up.

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