Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Stand Alone/Book 1
Publisher: Tor (9/1/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Updraft is a lovely book, a mesmerizing debut from Fran Wilde that draws readers beyond the clouds into an incredibly imagined world of open skies, towers and wings. A lot of readers should enjoy this one, like I did. So why not a higher rating? As with a lot of crossover genre fiction, my main struggle was with the story and writing style, and a dissonance between what I read versus what I expected. Sometimes, getting something completely different can result in a huge payoff. Other times, I am left feeling torn.
On the one hand, I adored the world of Updraft because it was beautiful, innovative, and mind-blowingly unique. But on the other, its story and plot elements feel like it has been done before. While nothing about the book’s cover, description, publisher, etc. ostensibly screams Young Adult, in many ways this does read and real a lot like a YA novel. We follow a teenage protagonist, a young woman named Kirit Densira who dreams of becoming a sky trader, but first she must pass a trial to earn her wings. However, this is all before the plot reveals there is something different and special about Kirit, a suggestion that she has a secret talent that destines her for much greater things.
Kirit and her family and friends also live in one of the many skyward bone towers that make up the city, with living conditions determined by which structural tier you occupy – in both the physical and social sense. No matter which tower you’re from though, every citizen is at the mercy of the Spire, the tallest, most powerful and forbidding tower deep in the heart of the city. The Spire has the final say in all matters and uses its secrets to change history and keep the other towers under their thumb. An individual tower’s prestige and benefits – like whether they should be allowed certain privileges or be given the permission to rise – are determined by a special class of law makers and enforcers called Singers, whom citizens both revere and mistrust. Citizens are allowed to challenge Singers, but the results are often rigged against them. The Spire will also make the other towers pay by making examples of their lawbreakers, sacrificing them in very public displays, claiming this is how the Spire protects all of them. Citizens are not only expected to accept this, they are also expected to be thankful. Not surprisingly, the main antagonist is also the most influential Singer, a dictator-like figure who has everyone in his pocket, and of course he’s out to use Kirit for his own means.
Perhaps you see what I’m getting at. For sure, I credit the sky setting for being amazingly creative. If I weren’t so hopelessly afraid of heights, I would love to live in a world like this, to soar into the wild blue yonder on silken wings while feeling the brisk wind on my face. My concern is though, for all of the wonderful new sights and sounds, readers of YA dystopian fiction will still probably find the underlying themes very familiar. I also found the plot terribly predictable. There weren’t many surprises story-wise; I knew what Kirit’s fate would be from the start, guessed who her allies and enemies were, what challenges she would face, and how those challenges would resolve. The predictability never quite went away, and I feel it was the novel’s one and only flaw. For me, that was enough to make the difference, keeping Updraft from being a book that swept me off my feet.
That said though, this book also has an unbelievable number of strengths that make it worth reading. I’ve said this already but I have no problems saying it again: Fran Wilde’s world of Updraft will make your jaw drop. One only has to look at the cover to see what kind of wonders you’ll be in for. A whole civilization that lives above the clouds on towers of living bone. Giant tentacled sky predators that travel in huge migrations, causing great danger to the towers and any citizens on the wing. Breathtaking scenes of airborne maneuvers and skirmishes are guaranteed to make you see the physics and aerodynamics of flying in a whole new light. The world building is fantastically done, and I can’t stress that enough.
Then there’s the emotional appeal. Readers will no doubt root for Kirit, the unlikely champion pitted against a stronger enemy who has the weight and power of establishment behind him. The idea might not be new, but it’s an undeniably compelling one and a favorite for the ages. Readers who enjoy themes of family might also appreciate Kirit’s complex relationship with her mother Ezarit – the woman she admires but feels she’ll never live up to. Kirit’s best friend Nat and his mother Elna play a huge role in her support system as well, and their characters shine an interesting light on the concept of familial ties.
Ultimately Updraft is a good book that will appeal to readers across a broad age range. The predictability of the plot and familiar themes notwithstanding, the story is sure to blow readers away with its fascinating world building, plus it also has the added benefit of being a self-contained stand alone. Fran Wilde has an impressive novel debut here that will ignite imaginations and enchant readers; whether she decides to write other books in this universe or start something new entirely, I look forward to reading more.