Instead of home, Boris returned to his office, where he touched the scrying ball. An image of the seditionist’s hideout superimposed itself onto his room. He watched as the shapes moved around, congregated in little discussion groups. He was now filled with hatred for those subversives. They were dreamers and he would smash their dreams. Their discussions slowly diminished to whispers in the night until they were quiet. But in the background Boris could see two of them coupling quietly; in the darkness it looked like one dark creature changing shape, struggling to transform itself. Eventually that, too, finished and Boris stared alone into the dark. Unwrapped Sky – Rjurik Davidson.
The first two chapters are available online here.
Unwrapped Sky – 5 out of 5 stars
Another book by an Australian author read during April, another Gemmell Morningstar award nominee (Godless was also), and another awesome 5 star book*. Loved this book, real characters with depth, a gorgeous and intelligent complexity throughout in the plot and the story, and a fearless approach to including outlandish fantastical elements without bringing . The writing style was dense, intricate, bordering poetic. What really stood out for me was the way Davidson cleverly mingled philosophical discussion about the socio-political conflict into the driving forces of this story whilst managing to remain very tightly character focused. Plus – it has philosopher-assassins**! Let’s be honest – this is a demanding book. It’s not the world’s easiest read, but it is rewarding. Find yourself a quiet space and dedicate some time to it. Worth your time.
The Minotaurs, noble heroes and proud veterans of an old war have again made pilgrimage to the city of Caeli-Amur to be honoured by its people. For a few, this honour turns to betrayal, murder. Slaughtered for commerce, for use as thaumaturgical components, these treacherous crimes could be a reflection on the dark soul of the city itself… Caeli-Amur seethes under the oppression of three warring Houses that control everything; production, employment, and most important of all the Houses control magic – called thaumaturgy. Thaumaturgy powers chariots and other technologies, in an age when so much knowledge of technology and magic seems lost. Thaumaturgy summons and binds creatures from the other side, including the savage and horrific beasts called furies used by the Houses as murderous shock troops and brutal crowd control. Thaumaturgy underpins much of life in Caeli-Amur, but use of thaumaturgy exposes its workers to corruption, mutation, and psychosis unless the proper protective spells are used… and the Houses refuse to share knowledge of these protections. But from under the yoke of the Houses, things are starting to change in Caeli-Amur. Across the city the guildworkers protest and take strike action. Seditionists disperse dissenting newsletters and terrorist strikes. Production is disrupted. Opposition grows. The Elo-Talern, otherworldly immortals who have previously supported the Houses, are increasingly distant. Beneath the surface the city approaches boiling point and it’s here that the stories of three individuals intertwine. Kata the philosopher-assassin does ugly work at the behest of the Houses to clear her medical debts. Boris Autec is a rising-star bureaucrat, gaining authority and power in one of the Houses by abandoning old friends and leaving his beliefs behind him. Maximilian the romantic, idealistic seditionist who wants to bring down the three Houses by gaining access to a Great Library in the Sunken City of Caeli Enas that rests at the bottom of the sea just off the coast.
Saw a bit of a discussion with the author on twitter (@RjurikDavidson) about the alternative cover to this book: Now this is a lovely cover – nice artwork of a Minotaur and Kata the philosopher-assassin, but for my two cents, I’m glad I bought the blue cover. I would argue that the minotaur cover is almost misleading, it looks much more adventure fantasy, and picking up a book with this cover I might expect the two on the cover to be ‘undertaking an epic quest together’ – which doesn’t happen. No, I prefer the blue cover, the boat at night over the sunken city of Caeli Enas – not only for the fantastic image itself and the always helpful fact this is actually a scene from the book, but also because it evokes a melancholic mood, an underlying sadness that I felt was an important part of the atmosphere of the novel.
The characters are done so very well in this book, believable, well rounded, and very complex. This complexity results in a ‘greyness’ that might form a barrier to some readers, as the three main characters are at times very unsympathetic, and do very unlikable things. Kata the philosopher-assassin is in dire straights. She wants only freedom from the Houses, but she needs expensive medicines to cure her of fits (epilepsy?), and so she is forced by the Houses to do despicable things – murder, infiltration, betrayal – in order to get her supply. Maximillian the seditionist is naïve and generally honourable, but in his impatience and ambition he turns against a beloved mentor (who preached a slow political movement), and risks the lives of others in his rush to bring things to a head. Boris seeks promotion for genuine reasons – to be in a position of power to change the life of his old friends in the guilds for the better, but with each step up the ladder he sacrifices more and more of himself and his ethics. There are no white knights in this book, no moustache twirling villains. Every person has a relatable and understandable reason for their actions, even when these actions are dire. Each changes over the course of the novel, so even at the end when they get what they thought they wanted at the start, none are happy with the conclusion.
I found the setting particularly impressive – the city of Caeli-Amur was alive with action, the factions, the oppressed population, the political plays of the Houses all felt very rich to me. The history of the city and the world was touched upon, skated over almost, but I felt there was enough detail to explain the ‘now’. I would contrast this brief history with the detailed history of Godless by Peek. In Unwrapped Sky, we catch glimpses of history as we see ancient failed technology, sunken libraries centuries old protected by old magics, references to old battles, some Cataclysm… mere flashes of the past. In Godless the past was almost a character, we are treated to significant memories of someone who lived it. Neither is better for this approach, I just found myself making the comparison as I read. I mentioned earlier Davidson was fearless with his inclusion of both classic and unusual fantasy tropes and the fearlessness means the reader is encouraged to simply accept the world as presented. We see technologies and industrial factories powered by the corruptive thaumaturgy and charms, we have the magnificent Minotaurs, the oddly Lovecraftian feel I got from the Elo-Talern, the sunken city itself guarded by great leviathans, some truly ancient mages… all included, and all well integrated. The world is weird, but never self-consciously so.
Ah, the writing. I’ve said it borders on poetic – its beautifully descriptive, it contains powerful and clever use of metaphor, just… just on occasion I found it a trifle over-engineered. I would occasionally find my eyes slipping from a paragraph like it was oiled, and I had to backtrack to find my place again. These moments were rare, but noticeable. I also loved the deep and overt political and philosophical discussions held by the characters within the book, they added an unexpected element, and made me feel like we were watching a Caeli-Amur go through an ‘Arab-Spring’ style revolution. Ideologies were challenged, power structures attacked. Most fantasy novels with a political element are ‘Game of Thrones’ style Kings and Queens fighting wars over a crown. Here it is the people rising, not simply the coronation of some new figurehead. Again though, it occasionally felt like everyone in the city had a tertiary education in political science or philosophy. In some cases this made sense – the seditionists are (at the beginning) a core of students and thinkers – in others… it did not. I LOVED the idea of the philosopher-assassins, but I still can’t what sort of guidance counselling leads to this career path (although there would be a lot less jokes about Arts students if murdering people was the primary post-degree employment option). Regardless of these few flaws, the writing is delightful through most of the book. The increasing protests and active sedition brings a tension that builds through the book. The moral greyness of each of the main characters gives the novel a sadness, an overall melancholic feel I mentioned when discussing the cover.
I really enjoyed this book – it is densely packed, complex story that rewards a careful reader. More political and philosophical than action packed, this is still a fantasy novel about people’s relationship with power – desire for it, desire to get free of it, desire to smash the existing power structure. I will be picking up book two. Cheers KT P.S – I just found out there is a free ‘prequel’ short story available on Tor.com: Nighttime in Caeli-Amur. I’ll be reading this later. 🙂
*I also read Queen of the Tearling (yet another spectacular 5 star book), but Godless got my vote for the Gemmell awards. It was tough to split the three of them, but I eventually asked myself the question “Which of the second books would I pick up if I only had the cash to buy one?”. **Hmmm, I was also a big fan of the Psychiatrist/Chaplin in this book… seems like I have a soft spot for fictional oddly mixed career choices.