A Ryan's Shadow Novella
If you’ve read The Waking Fire, you’ll know Anthony Ryan is capable of great things—fun characters with snappy dialogue, epic and interesting worlds, engaging quest-based stories, and grand mysteries that resolve to reveal further secrets. All these elements are present in Many Are the Dead, a novella from his Raven’s Shadow world… they’re just not tied together.
Take the fun characters. We follow an experience-hardened monk living on the border of violent tribal mountains as he aids a resourceful nun from a different order in a perilous quest to retrieve an herb rumored to cure a plague spreading in the lowlands. The monk is pleasantly terse, the nun Nynaevedly resourceful, and their interactions, along with a mute monk, an expressive dog, and a bitter lowland-raised tribal shaman, make for great conversation. What they don’t make is for any meaningful internal changes in the characters, such as Lisbeth or Clay go through in The Waking Fire. Given, we can’t expect as much from a novella a tenth as long as his other works, but the ending lines of the novella hint at an unresolved love between the two main characters that could have been there, giving that ending punch and a pleasant ascetic kind of wistfulness, but isn’t. Instead it feels more like a grasping for satisfying internal journey than the conclusion to one.
The setting, emebellishing a hidden corner of the well-fleshed out Raven’s Shadow world, is lots of fun: there are terse and culturally alien tribal highlanders, abandoned fortresses built by fools, secret tunnels, and wild beasts under magical control. It feels just right for the scope of the novella, and is lots of fun to wander through as the mystery pulling the characters along develops.
That mystery is another place Ryan doesn’t live up to the work he’s done other places. What we love about mysteries is seeing all the pieces fall into surprising place, just a page or two before we would have guessed it. This is something Ryan is good at, but it doesn’t happen in Many Are the Dead. Instead of the magical conflict we wander into having something to do with the herbs or the plague that kick off the plot, they remain two separate story lines that coincidentally happen at once. Same with the sought-after mcguffins, a mysterious weed and two children of promise: they appear without effort and fulfill a role, but have nothing to do with each other, and little importance to the main characters. In place of the fun jolts of these pieces falling into logical connection, we often have cliffhangers where some beast or other attacks—which is fine in moderation, but it feels overdone here (after the third or fourth dire situation in which no one dies, it’s hard to believe anyone important ever will).
This is not to say Many Are the Dead is not a good read—it pulled us through readily enough, based mainly on the strength of the world and the promise of the characters. It just doesn’t tie together in the end to form anything larger than the sum of its parts (in the way that, say, The Emperor’s Soul comes crashing together at novella’s end), which is a shame only because Ryan has proved elsewhere he is capable of so much more.
Fantastic Science Fiction
How well does a fantasy author do writing space? Specifically, how do the things we love about 27th best-selling author in the world (acc. to Amazon) Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novels translate into a technology-based future setting?
Quite well. Sanderson is best known for his world-building, with unique and interesting settings that peel back onionlike to reveal deeper and deeper secrets. Usually, that is the magical history of the world/shattered gods, and the intricacies of how that magic works. There is little room for that kind of magic here (though Skyward does have psytonics—but hey, Star Wars has The Force) but the world is still deep, with a refugee population baffled by an implacable and apparently rule-bound alien foe, battling across an epic sphere of dead tech in decaying orbit, with strange machines of war buried deep (or not so deeply) underground.
Sanderson is also known for magical main characters whose personal journeys tie into the role of magic in the world and plot, a feat harder to pull off in science fiction… and yet Skyward does it too, with a spunky teen female lead whose father died in mysterious circumstances related to both her ‘deviant’ mental abilities and the setting’s larger mysteries. If I can go deep for a moment, main character Spensa also seems to follow an arc of main characters in Sanderson’s oeuvre, starting with already-heroic Kelsier in Mistborn, with each new iteration of hero taking a little long to become heroic (see Kaladin, then Wax) and feeling a little more conflicted about it. Spensa is the most powerful expression of that to date, starting off with a false heroism based on defending her family’s besmirched name, then having that shattered when she gets into real combat, and building it back up again into something more real. Her inward journey feels human and believable, and in trademark style Sanderson ties it deeply and satisfyingly into the larger plot and setting mysteries.
Speaking of plot, Skyward is paced and plotted masterfully, with just the right amount of action and reflection and character development in just the right places—a real page-turner. While this is not the exclusive domain of fantasy or science-fiction, it is rare to see it done as well as Sanderson does here and in other recent non-Stormlight-Archive-chihuahua-killer books.
Is the book a perfect 10, then? Did a fantasy author stick his landing into sci-fi on the first go? Not to our eyes. A few of the major plot moments felt telegraphed from early on (SPOILERS: Spensa flying out of the planetary defense system like her father did, and M-Bot coming to save the day), and while the writing was strong enough that these moments still shine, they might have had more punch if they were surprising as well as inevitable. A little more disappointing was the eventual reveal of what was above the orbiting junk, and the reasons for her father’s betrayal. From an author known for inverting tropes and surprising twists, these felt… very familiar. I suspect as they get developed more in books two and three they will take on a more unique cast, but taking Skyward on its own merits, this part of the worldbuilding felt phoned-in, and central as they are to the book’s questions, were a bit of a letdown.
Nitpicks aside, Skyward kept us up way past bedtime (and in this case, freezing in an uninsulated North Dakota garage when we should have been stoking the fire and climbing under blankets) in all the best ways, and proves more unites scifi and fantasy than it often seems. Enough so that we thought it could fit on a fantasy review site—and even if you’re set on the magical past, you might enjoy a journey Skyward too.