Unwrapped Sky - Rjurik Davidson Unwrapped Sky - Rjurik Davidson
**NOTE: All quotations are taken from an uncorrected digital galley and are therefore provisional. Quotes will be corrected when the book is released.**

 

Unwrapped Sky

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."

His pretense of "friendship" towards Paxaea is sickening and hypocritical; within a page of his vow that

"I would never treat you like that. I would never use you for my animal desires,"

he is pushing her down and trying to rape her. He takes her refusal to meet his gaze as shyness, her trembling as desire rather than fear, her lack of resistance as consent.  His character only degrades further as the story continues.  When he traps her in a situation where she believes her life is in peril, he enjoys

"the fear and surprise in her eyes. It was like playing a wonderful prank."

Afterwards, when she tells him that she never wanted him in the first place, he exerts his power over her, rapes her, and discovers he is titillated by her fear and humiliation:

"Again he spoke the word and the torc tightened further. A little gurgle escaped her lips and the emerald eyes were filled with alarm. Those eyes--the same ones he had seen at the water palace--excited him. He pushed himself down onto her and the warmth of her body close to him aroused him further. He reached down and undid his pants."

Yet even as blames Paxaea for her "deceit" and for "allowing" him to love her, he still believes he can command her love:

"Don't think you'll ever escape my  grasp. Don't think you'll ever be free. You're mine now, to do with what I will. And you'll like it, damn it! You'll grow to love it."

Boris begins as a weak, rather pitiable man, but each betrayal, each transgression, seems to bolster both his confidence and his egomania.  He begins as a man too timorous and too concerned with self-preservation to aid his friend, but ends as a rapist, a tyrant, a literal eater of souls. Given the way that the narrative equates memory with personality and humanity, this form of cannibalism takes on additional significance. I spent most of the book gritting my teeth through his sections and avidly hoping for a particularly horrific death for him, and his final actions did not assuage my disgust.  Freeing Paxaea after he can no longer use her is not a noble act; it is as self-interested as all the rest.  Still, I love their final conversation:

"You were always impossible to penetrate, like a labyrinth."

"You cannot force someone to open herself to you."

He nodded, crying. "How else...how else?"

"Some things are just beyond the reach of some of us."

(show spoiler)

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.

I found Max's egocentrism--and they hypocrisy that goes with it--to be profoundly disturbing. I agree that his rationalisations are weak, that, as one character tells him, he desires power 

"Purely for your own interests. You have visions of becoming a great thaumaturgist yourself, a vision with little to do with seditionism."

Max realises that the seditionists are at risk of becoming that which they fight, that, as he says,

"We must be the new people we hope a better world will create."

Max realises that the seditionists' very attempts to bring about change are betrayals of their cause:

"To create a world where people around me are treated with humanity, I treat those around me in precisely the opposite manner."

Yet his ambition so clouds his motivations that to my mind, he is as self-deluded as Boris.  We are told that Max is generous and dedicated, and that "he cared about others, the weak and damaged," but I felt that none of his actions actually indicated this. He betrays his own mentor to secure his status within the group, but justifies his actions with:

"Individual attachments had to be sacrificed for the good of the cause. He thought of Nkando and all the Nkandos of the world. He acted for them. Sometimes small evils needed to be performed for the greater good."

Despite his insistence that he wants to save the Xsanthians, yet his desire of reaching the Sunken City puts them at risk and as soon as he finds another path to his goal, he forgets them. To my mind, this proves that he never wanted to save them; he just wanted to use them.

 

Like Boris, the seditionists start out as a neutral, or even positive force, but each decision they make takes them further and further away from a path of righteousness.  They use the very people they are supposedly helping as tools, manipulating them, "directing" them, sacrificing them. They associate with groups whose methods are even worse than the houses, justifying themselves with the belief that they can later betray these allies later:

"One step at a time. First the immediate enemy, with whoever supports us against them. Then a second step, against the second enemy, shedding those who no longer walk beside us."

Their own choices, their own attempts to grasp power, warp them as surely as thaumaturgy warps its practitioners, until they can no longer see just how wrong their actions are.  As the exiled leader Kamron notes,

"Some of the gravest injustices have been done by those who thought they were doing right."

Or who have at least managed to convince themselves that they were.

(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.

 

She sees herself as "just a reed blowing whichever way the wind took her," but perhaps this is the only possibility in her world. Mathias' brief story hints that in this world, those who do not bend are swiftly broken.

Kata is not without her faults--for one thing, she's both impulsive and rather stupid.  For example, why on earth move the sphere when she suspects that it has been found? How could she not have predicted a trap?  However, I enjoyed her quick wits and her unblinking view of the world.  Only she sees past the delusions that the others use to cloak their actions. When one character argues that the end justifies the means, she responds:

"But not all means lead to the same end."

(show spoiler)

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.

My feelings about the similarities to our world were mixed; while I enjoyed mentions of the easy-going "Cajiun" philosophers, the Numerians were more bothersome.  They are so clearly Africans-they live in a land with "wondrous creatures" that include lions, elephants, and monkeys, and the only Numerian name mentioned in the text is "Nkando," which, in our world, is a last name as well as a location in Malawi.  And, of course, the only humans enslaved in the world are these black humans.  I'm not sure what the story gained from such strong echoes of our world.

(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? 

Definitely.

 

"The world seemed once more a place of potential, as if possibility had been set free, just like the unwrapped sky above."

(show spoiler)

 

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