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.