Publisher: Delacorte Press
Page Count: 510
Release Date: November 6th, 2018
Every once in a while, a book comes along that sweeps you away. When you finally put it down, you lift your head out of a fog and need a few minutes to process what you just read. SKYWARD by Brandon Sanderson is one such book. The tense action, fused with an impressive character arc for its lead protagonist, builds to a final showdown that keeps its foot on the gas until the last few pages before ejecting you back into reality. In short, it is quite a ride!
We open on the planet of Detritus. That’s where one of the last fleets of human ships crash-landed a few generations ago while escaping an alien race known as the Krell. Little is known about the Krell, save that they are bent on the eradication of the human race. On Detritus, humans live deep in underground caverns, salvaging what they can from their ships and from the ancient technology left behind by a long ago human colony. Every effort and resource the humans have go towards supporting the one colony on the surface: Alta, home to the starfighter defense force that keeps enemy Krell ships at bay. What little is left of humanity on this planet calls itself Defiant.
Spensa is a sixteen-year-old girl who has lived on Detritus her whole life. She’s had an extra burden placed on her by events from nine years ago, during a critical battle between Defiant starfighters and the Krell. During that battle, her father fled the field and was shot down by his flight to prevent other pilots from doing the same. As if his death wasn’t bad enough, her father was branded a coward and held up as an example of the very worst a Defiant citizen could be. While Spensa refuses to believe the official story, it proves a grave hindrance in her attempts to achieve her life’s dream: to become a starfighter pilot herself. Spensa has to fight tooth and nail at every turn to prove she belongs as a cadet, despite every obstacle thrown at her by the admiral of the fleet. But when Spensa discovers a crashed and abandoned fighter, she realizes she may have another way to fly.
The heart and soul of this book is Spensa. Sanderson has done a wonderful job of capturing the voice of an obstinate teenage girl who is convinced she can take on the world and win. The first person used in this book is critical to feeling the constant drum in her head: she is not a coward, nor will she allow any circumstances to prove otherwise. That single-mindedness made me wince at times, in part because I recognized a little bit of my own teenage self in Spensa. Because we are with Spensa’s first person for almost the entire book, we are in the pressure cooker of her emotions: the desire to prove she isn’t a coward, to become a starfighter pilot, and to find out what really happened to her father are such an unrelenting refrain that I was on the verge of being annoyed by the repetitiveness. But just when I hit that point, everything came to a head and that pressure cooker of emotions blew. Watching (and feeling) the character arc that results from the fallout is what carried me through this story.
Not to say that the action and the world-building aren’t impressive as well. True to form, Sanderson has plenty of intricate skirmishes and the mother of all final battles. The vocabulary of flight maneuvers is accessible and easy to follow. The world-building itself is fairly contained for Sanderson. The focus of this tale is squarely on Spensa and her personal arc – extra mythology is treated as more of a garnish. We do gradually learn more about both the Krell and the humans on Detritus, but those revelations come slowly and mostly towards the end, leaving much to be explored in the next book.
If there is one perhaps nitpicking flaw in SKYWARD, it’s that Spensa’s development comes at the expense of the development of other characters. Spensa is in a cadet group with nine other teenagers, but we mostly get broad stroke characterizations for them. Part of this is intentional – the Admiral refuses to allow Spensa to live on base, depriving her of the bonding time the other cadets get. While that helps reinforce Spensa’s isolation, it hinders some of the minor character arcs. The development of Spensa’s love interest, for instance, felt forced instead of earned.
Overall, though, this book was a resounding success. I took the last 150 pages in one sitting, realizing I had clearly hit a point of no return in the plot. It was an emotional rollercoaster that I was glad to experience, and I cannot wait for the sequel next year. So what are you waiting for? Grab your helmet and this book and get ready to claim the stars.