Novella Review: Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tordotcom (April 11, 2023)

Length: 152 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I tend to approach novellas with a healthy dose of wariness, since too often I find them lacking in character or story development (or both). My preference for rich and immersive fantasy books and spending lots of time reading about the people and places in them means that the novella format rarely gives me what I’m looking for, though from time to time, I find myself surprised. Every once in a blue moon, a novella will come along that is just right, and Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee is one of them.

The book takes us to a world where monsters of myth are real, and rukhers like our protagonist Ester hunt with rocs to keep the kingdom’s countryside safe from deadly manticore attacks. It’s a difficult and dangerous job, but Ester has never doubted that this was her calling. Rocs have fascinated her ever since she was a little girl, and later on, becoming a victim and survivor of a manticore attack only made her even more determined to work with these giant birds of prey.

The story begins with Ester recounting the early days when she had just been accepted into the Royal Mews, where rukhers are stationed and trained. But first, every new apprentice must prove they have what it takes to handle a roc. Ester is presented with her very own fledgling, Zahra, with whom she will need to bond and raise to be a fearsome hunter. Gradually, we follow Ester and Zahra as they rise through the ranks, meeting other rukhers and learning about their ways. But as the king’s armies continue to expand his territory, more areas are becoming prone to manticore attacks, humans being their preferred prey. Only a roc can take out these vicious beasts, but rukhers are relatively few and can’t be everywhere at once. The enormous birds too can be unpredictable and fickle in their attentions, complicating matters at times, for at the end of the day, rocs are wild animals themselves.

Unlike the author’s Green Bone Saga, which is a sprawling epic trilogy, Untethered Sky feels almost barebones in its simplicity and tight focus, no doubt because Lee recognizes the limiting constraints of a novella and wisely chose to keep the scale modest. Despite the smallness of its scope though, the story packs no less a punch. Ester is our focal point, leaving little attention to spare for anyone else, but that’s okay, for it means readers are immediately able to form an emotional connection to this headstrong young woman and to better understand her commitment to her work. To achieve this, the plot relies on a handful of standard tropes—family killed by a manticore leading to a lifelong hatred for them and a hunger for vengeance, for instance—but that also gets us quicker to the meat of the story, which is the unique partnership between Ester and her roc, Zahra.

Sacrifices also had to be made to world-building, often leaving it up to readers to infer certain details about the wider world rather than spelling it all out, but here is where a narrower scope is advantageous to the story. The author can spend more time developing the culture and customs of rukhers when they’re socializing in the Royal Mews or when they’re on the hunt, going into fascinating detail into everything from training methods to the proper care of rocs.

Lest you get the wrong idea though, this is far from your cutesy How to Train Your Dragon type story with a heartwarming ending where everyone gets to go home happy. Ester is ever aware that the love she has for Zahra can never be returned, for no matter how well they are trained, rocs are nature’s creatures bound by instinct. And yet, I found this situation bittersweet and touching in its own way, watching the protagonist give her whole heart to Zahra even knowing full well the roc may break it one day.

The length of this novella was also just right, which is not something I get to say often. But just as Lee knew to keep the story simple, she also knew exactly how to pace it and when to end it. The plot flowed smoothly, moving naturally from scenes of thrilling action and adventure to softer, more sorrowful moments without feeling rushed or experiencing any lulls. Perhaps the only exception to this was the ending, but I can’t decide if it was actually too abrupt or if I’m just letting my emotions get the better of me! Admittedly, it wasn’t the most satisfying conclusion, but I can also accept that it was appropriate given the overall themes and tone of the book.

If you’re a fan of Fonda Lee, this is a must-read. I was amazed how much she was able to pack into this slim volume, and even though I finished the book wanting more, it was in the best way possible. Overall, Untethered Sky was a gripping and all-consuming read, a rare novella that I was able to devour in a single evening and yet did not feel too sparse. But if the author ever decides to expand the world with more stories in the future, I do not think I would mind at all.

15 Comments on “Novella Review: Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee”

  1. Great review! I don’t tend to read Novellas either unless they are spin offs from a series that I love. I do want to read this though as it sounds brilliant. I read a conversation between Fonda Lee and Alix Harrow where she talks about writing this and it was really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad to hear how well this one worked. It’s another example of one I had really high hopes for all because of the cover. I can’t wait to try it.


  3. Pingback: Bookshelf Roundup 04/30/23: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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