The Memory of Sky - Robert Reed

Imagine a vibrant, noisy world where trees hang down from the sky and humans dwell in their trunks, where sunlight and monsters drift up from the mysterious demon floor far below.  Into this chaotic order, a child is born, a child who has the ability to remember any fact, to subtly alter his form, to heal from any wound. His very humanity is a gift, a promise of a future where his descendants are a little closer to immortal and invincible. The child is a precious, invaluable, terrifying prize--for whatever district or whatever people can claim him.  But like any power that can be avariciously hoarded, the child's very potential may be enough to tip the world into apocalyptic destruction.


I'm one of those shallow readers who is seduced by a book's cover, and between Memory of Sky's gorgeous artwork, evocative title, and appealing blurb on Netgalley, I was sold. The description made the story sound like a childhood adventure, a romp in a beautiful and creative world, a cozy, fluffy read.

It isn't.

Independent of the nature of your preconceptions, The Memory of Sky is not what you think it is. While at times it seems to be the story of the adventures of a special boy or a coming-of-age tale or a war story, the narrative undergoes abrupt and disconcerting shifts.  It is not exactly hard scifi or space opera or high fantasy.  The closest I can come is an incredibly creative story of speculative fiction, marked by an unusual yet absorbing writing style, and a world that is simultaneously uncomfortably close and disturbingly alien to our own.


The world is a vibrant, noisy place where every movement follows some infinitely intricate, ordered plan. The enormous batlike leatherwings swoop between the enormous trees that hang from the sky, ducking around the industrious treewalkers who scamper up the tree-ramps and into the dwellings within the trunks. Far away from the majestic bloodwood trees that house the palaces and universities and markets in the treewalkers' District of Districts, the stolid papio, the landwalking cousins of the treewalkers, toil amongst the vast coral beds. Farther below even the papio, some adventurous treewalkers ride the winds down towards the demon floor, the bottom of the earth, the mysterious hot place from which light and rain and the monstrous coronas emerge.


The writing style is peculiar, yet oddly vivid.  After an initial adjustment, I found myself savouring it. Some examples:

"Good souls stood on honourable legs, discussing and debating their miserable options."

"Yet every action wears costs. Motion meant burning energy as well as a piece of the day. No matter the precautions, there also was the insidious risk of being seen by the wrong eyes, and she never wanted to be seen."

"The mad idea took hold and squeezed."

"Whenever the fright was its largest--paranoia running wild with every bad dream--the boy would be treated to a keen rush of blood and oxygen, and his hearts felt happy, and his thoughts were slick and sudden, and the great world looked richer and more colorful and small enough to hold in either hand."

"Most of the fears aren't real, except when they live between the ears."

"Nothing changed and nothing changed, night holding tight to the world, and then wet hot masses of angry air rose in a thousand places, suddenly punching their way through the demon floor far below the vast tree canopy."

"Each body was tied to screams."

"No light lasts forever.

That was this day's meaning.

And maybe, hopefully, each of them hoped that no misery can outlast the end of All."

I included the quotes so you could judge for yourself, but I found that I loved how the writing style tempered my perspective of the world; I thought it was as peculiar and unbalancing and vivid as the story itself.


I think the aspect that I loved most was the way that Reed was able to construct a definition of normality that deviated so sharply from our own. As far as I can tell, Diamond is more human in appearance, and the treewalkers are peculiarly simian from our perspective.  Reed manages to perfectly capture treewalker perspective, to portray a world where trees hang from the sky and light comes from below, where arms are longer and feet are nearly prehensile, as utterly natural.  Even the tiny details--the way that the people count in recitations and days rather than hours--added a new dimension to the world.


Diamond, the main protagonist, is aptly named.  Like the almost-forgotten diamonds of the lost human world, he is a precious object whose very presence has the potential to inspire terrible greed that in turn erupts into fierce conflict.  Yet Diamond's very peculiarities create a (most likely intentional) distance between the characters and the reader. The story itself starts out bright and cozy, yet abruptly drops into depressing tragedy.[1]  Because of their pain and their sheer strangeness, I had difficulty connecting with the characters.  However, the worldbuilding was so creative, so fascinating, so simultaneously vividly detailed and mysterious, that I kept reading. If you're a hard scifi reader, this might not be the best fit--certain aspects of the worldbuilding seemed problematic to me, and personally I'd classify it as speculative fiction rather than scifi.[2] Also, although I didn't realise it until later, this is apparently the third book in a series, so it is entirely possible that aspects of the story that I failed to understand would be comprehensible with sufficient background.  While the central mystery remained unresolved for me, I still found it oddly satisfying; even if I don't really understand everything, I have the sense that the world is solidly constructed and that the answers are out there. To tell the truth, I was thoroughly enchanted by the disorienting changes in perspective, the enigmatic events, and even my sheer bewilderment.


The best word I can use to describe The Memory of Sky is "different." While it is far darker than the books I usually read, and while aspects of the plot feel both inevitable and tragic, I loved the way that it kept me on edge, always searching for the clues that would help me to unravel the world.




The dark irony of the precious gift bringing apocalyptic destruction was oddly gratifying, but as with Shakespearean tragedy, it's interesting to go back and count how many ways the eventual apocalypse could have been averted. It is the characters who turn it into a zero-sum game; as List says to the papio,

"Start one awful war today and win the world. Or do nothing, let us walk away, and the world is lost."

Haddi's words to Diamond are far truer than she realises:

 "Tell me. How many fathers did you kill that day?"

And yet the story ends before we even know if the hopes and fears for the way that Diamond could have changed the world could even have been realised.

And in the end, it is King who dismisses the world of the treewalkers and papio, their destruction and annihilation, as essentially irrelevant.  I'm still wondering how that opening prequel of vampiric humans fits into the whole.

(show spoiler)



For example, everyone keeps mentioning the lift provided by corona bladders because they are a vacuums that contain no particles.  However, I can't see how the sheer external pressure wouldn't collapse the bladders, and no rationale was given.  I also had difficulty understanding how the gravity of the world worked.

(show spoiler)


~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Prime Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~