**NOTE: All quotations are taken from an uncorrected digital galley and are therefore provisional. Quotes will be corrected when the book is released.**
by Rjurik Davidson
Recommended for: fans of grimdark high/epic fantasy
Long ago, so the legends say, a war between the gods ripped the world asunder, poisoning the lands, sending the ancient city of Caeli-Enas into the depths of the seas, twisting the art of thaumaturgy so that it warps the body and mind of its practitioners, fracturing the veil between this world and the horrors that wait on the Other Side. The gods turned their faces away from their people, leaving the world broken, burned, and corrupted. The once-great city of Caeli-Amur survived, but only barely. Since the war of the gods, the city has been controlled by the Houses, and the Houses themselves ruled by the mysterious Elo-Talern, the disturbing beings that exist between the world and the Other Side. Inside the crumbling city of Caeli-Amur, unrest is growing. Even inside the Houses, the Elo-Talern have stirred from their apathy and new talents are emerging within the leadership. Workers in the mills and plants are mutilated and murdered by the dangerous thaumaturgic powers that the industry employs. Small bands of seditionists distribute pamphlets and posters and plot revolution in the dark.
Something has to give.
Unwrapped Sky plummets the reader into an utterly alien, infinitely complex world, a gritty, often grotesque world filled with breathtaking imagination and incredibly broken, problematic characters. The story is told from the perspectives of three characters: Kata, a philosopher-assassin who starts out with the task of murdering two of the sacred minotaurs and all too quickly finds herself entangled in the city politics; Boris Autec, a self-deluded ex-tramworker who has risen through the House ranks by betraying all those around him; and Maximillian, a seditionist whose vision of change is polluted by his own ambitions. While the characters' lives intersect, each explores a different facet of the city and a different set of misdeeds. The world and plot are best classified as "grimdark", with a full quota of graphic violence, murder, abuse, torture, and rape. While several members of the cast are irredeemably, horrifically evil, no character is without a taint or blemish.
Personally, I found Boris to be the most disturbing of the three, to the point that I found it extremely unpleasant to have to view the world through his thoughts. At the opening of the story, he exhibits a disturbing lack of self-knowledge and insight, viewing himself as a "sensitive soul" and considering every failure to be everyone else's fault. As one character says to him:
"Boris, you have talent, you have...the necessary mercilessness for greater things."
"I'm not merciless," he said. "I'm not cruel."
"Oh, but you are, Boris. You are." [...]
"I only do what is necessary."
Max's perspective supplies the most direct viewpoint onto one of the main themes of the book: the inherent contradictions of revolution. I found the seditionists both troubling and fascinating. Initially, the seditionists plan to use conspiracy and violence to drive the people towards revolution:
"[The citizens] are too complacent and only act when they are personally under threat. We must be the catalyst for their actions. We must force events, provoke confrontations, so that the citizens take sides."
This aspect of the story reminded me strongly of Les Miserables. Despite their lofty goals, the seditionists--just like the Houses they despise--treat the citizenry like cattle, like a force to be prodded and mobilized and trained and abused. The seditionists claim that the ends justify the means:
"We cannot be representations of the new world. We are only here to usher it in."
Max himself has something of Enjolras in him; while he does desire change, he also wants to be in control, to gain fame and power, to "take a special place in seditionism." When the story opens, he justifies his personal mission because he thinks that greater control over thaumaturgy will give the seditionists the edge they so desperately need, but, as one character tells him, his quest for knowledge is, at its core, utterly selfish.(show spoiler)
Like the revolutionaries of Les Miserables, the seditionists initially appear to have no real vision of the future; they will destroy stability and replace it with a power vacuum. They justify their actions with the claim that
"The death of innocents: that was the cost of politics."
But who decided that the purchase was worthwhile? Why does this tiny group get to make a choice that forces the whole city to pay?
Of the three, I liked Kata best, for she is the least self-deluded and hypocritical of the three. Kata sees herself as immoral and desperate; while she still does truly terrible things, at least she doesn't convince herself that her actions are anything other than self-preservation.
My favourite aspect of the book was the worldbuilding. The sheer breadth of imagination is staggering; the world is inhabited by minotaurs and sirens, by the fishlike Xsanthians, the peculiar Anlusian New-Men, and the skeletal and partially disembodied Elo-Talern. Within the city, the philosopher-assassins muse about the world and kill people on the side, while desperate factory workers risk invasion from the Other Side each time they invoke the thaumaturgical components. Life in Caeli-Amur may be brutal, but it remains one of the more habitable places in this harsh world. Mutant refugees flee the corrupted northern wastelands, the abandoned city of Caeli-Enas gleams from the depths of the oceans, and across the savage landscape lies Valentis, trapped in the iron grip of twelve pitiless sorcerers. Even the basic philosophies felt strange; the characters see their souls, their humanity, as a product of their memories, so losing memory becomes a kind of death.
At the same time, the sheer breadth of the worldbuilding meant that details were necessarily a little scant. I would have liked to understand what made the three fields of thaumaturgy incompatible; in our world, any layman can explain in a sentence why relativity and quantum are contradictory, but all we are ever told about the fields is that they require incompatible worldviews and that crossing the streams is dangerous. I was also fascinated by the New-Men; I would love to know where they came from, what their goals are, and how these "new" people were created in the first place.(show spoiler)
Unwrapped Sky struggles to reveal what differentiates animals from men and men from gods; what principles must be kept and what must be discarded for expediency.
Overall, while the characters were more flawed and story was grimmer and more grotesque than I would usually prefer, the book was so incredibly imaginative, the worldbuilding so infinitely complex, that I was captivated.
Will I keep an eye open for the sequel?