Book Review: Unwrapped Sky (Mania.com)
Review Date: Monday, April 07, 2014
With merely a surface glance, readers might be inclined to peg Unwrapped Sky, the debut novel from Rjurik Davidson, as yet more fantasy in line with what's come before. And yet Tor clearly noticed the layered depth hidden just beyond the the surface. Unwrapped Sky isn't simply another pretty cover, although it has one of those too, it's a tale of class warfare, of industrial workers abused beyond their limit, and the rigid House structure of privilege, which violently keeps them in their place.
Interwoven within this Industrial Age is a marvelously deep fantasy world with roots in the mythos of the Ancient Greeks. Living beside the humans are sirens, minotaurs, fish folk, and more. Magic exists as thaumaturgy, which takes the place of this world's steam/coal power, and is the driving force behind their industrial revolution. But thaumaturgy, even when wielded by elite house practitioners, can cause mutilating side effects over time. The houses employ destitute workers as disposable thaumaturgists, paying them to construct magic powered tram cars until they are bodily ruined, then discarding them. The status quo can't continue, but the houses wield hideous magical assault units to keep the workers in line.
Into the spotlights on this well appointed stage spring three protagonists with wildly different stakes in the conflict. Maximilian is a gifted thaumaturgist, and an idealistic seditionist, whose plans to topple the houses in Caeli-Amur hinge on discovering ancient knowledge from the great library of sunken sister city, Caeli-Enas. Boris is a former tram worker who has managed to rise through the officiate ranks for House Technis, and must put a stop to the seditionists to keep a stronghold on his privilege. Kata is a philosopher-assassin, a mercenary soul who doesn't have a dog in the fight unless she's paid to.
Much of the compelling intrigue of Unwrapped Sky springs from this trifecta of personalities. None of them are wholly in the right, and all of them are personally flawed to some solid degree. This isn't the black and white tale of a hero rising through insurmountable odds to topple monochromatic evil. Make no mistake, Boris can be a horrendous person, but he's given depth; his intentions aren't mustache twirling. Flipping the coin over, Maximilian isn't a Boy Scout, bereft of all actions unsavory. He has to make hard decisions, and sometimes he does so selfishly. Kata is easily the most sympathetic character, which is fascinating since she's a double agent employed by Boris to undermine the seditionists before she becomes embroiled in their ideals. It's to her most readers will most easily relate as she struggles to stay afloat amid deadly intrigue.
There's a tremendous deal of nuance baked into Unwrapped Sky by Davidson. He manages to continually play the sides off of each other slicker than the Samurai and Gunslinger do in Yojimbo and A Fist Full of Dollars. This is his debut work, and yet the narrative unfolds as if from the pen of a seasoned world builder. He describes a colorfully diverse city, with stately upper crust manors, wallowing slums, smoke laced cafés, and work a day docks all springing vividly from the pages. Hidden behind all of this is a legendary history, the real details lost to the distance of time. How the original builders of both cities play into the unfolding uprising is a fascinating take on how we fill in the incredible where our knowledge lapses. To say more might spoil the fun.
Unwrapped Sky will thrill fans of rich mythologies, uniquely fleshed out fantasy worlds, flawed protagonists, political intrigue, lost civilizations, and hidden power. It simultaneously delivers something new, while feeling engagingly comfortable.
Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson hits store shelves on April 15 from TOR Books for $25.99. Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
Mania Grade: B
Author: Rjurik Davidson
Publisher: Tor Publishing
Book Genre: Fantasy
Format: Hardback, 432 pages