Monday, April 14, 2014

REVIEW: Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson

Unwrapped SkyUnwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2014 (April 15)
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: Likely but not sure what it will be called
Awards: None
Format: E-book – Advanced Reader Copy from publisher through Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.
Narrated By: NA
Unwrapped Sky is being described as a new entry into the “New Weird” genre. Authors that are credited for writing in this genre include China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, K.J. Bishop and Steph Swainston. The label appears to be applied to speculative fiction that subverts the normal tropes of fantasy and aims to challenge the reader. It can also be seen as a cross-over between fantasy and horror fiction. The only writer on the above list that I have experience with is China Mieville so I likely can’t shed light on how similar or different Unwrapped Sky is to other books in this genre but I would say this was definitely a weird read for me.

The setting for the book is the coastal city of Caeli Amur, a corrupt city with a vaguely Roman feel to it that is run by three elite Houses: Marin, Arbor and Technis. The Houses in turn are beholden to a strange race of alien creatures called the Elo-Talern who have recently become more involved in the politics of the Houses after a long absence. The rest of the city is made up mostly of oppressed people who are exploited by The Houses to create technologies that are half mechanized, half magic. The magic used is called Thaumaturgy and its practice warps the user and eventually kills them. Also playing a role in the tale is the submerged sister city of Caeli Enas which is guarded by sea serpents and is thought to hold lost secrets in its great library. Mythical creatures such as Minotaurs and Sirens are also present in this world though their mythical power is mostly gone.

It is definitely clear to me why this book would be included in the New Weird because it did seem to be a blending of fantasy and horror. There are a lot of grotesqueries and ugliness - suicide attempts, rape, slavery, murder and dismemberment.

The setting and world-building is one place where I felt the novel succeeded. Davidson has imagined a detailed world that felt very original even though it incorporated some elements of ancient Greece and Rome. Caeli Amur felt like a fully realized society with a rich past and mythology. The writing was also very good though there was no prose that caught my attention enough to make me want to write it down. Here is an example from near the end that evokes the book’s name:

“Above her, the wind whipped the clouds away, as if they were pulling back a great sheet. The unwrapped sky was littered with stars of diamond-white brilliance. In between them, patches of jet black, the vast reaches of the universe. In that moment everything was bathed in clear light.”

Unfortunately for Unwrapped Sky, the things I appreciate most in a good book are primarily well- developed and interesting characters and secondarily a strong plot. I did not feel the book succeeded in either of these points. The tale is narrated from the perspective of three characters: Boris, a troubled house bureaucrat addicted to an exotic narcotic; Kata, practically a slave to the houses (although perhaps a better analogy is being in the mafia) serving as an assassin; and Maximilian, a young seditionist who wishes to overthrow the houses. Their stories are initially only tangentially related but they do eventually become more connected. Even though I had access to these characters innermost thoughts, I never felt like I knew, understood or liked any of them. Their motivations and actions seemed stilted and not born of any logical or even illogical reason. I did not find them interesting at all. Kata was probably the most sympathetic for me but even she does things that I felt were without true motivation. Their relationships are also flat and come out of nowhere. There is romance but it is sudden, unexplained and passionless. Basically I had little to no investment in the characters and their connections.

The plot also felt lackluster to me. It’s a story of revolution but because I didn’t care about any of the people involved I really couldn’t care about what was happening to them. The pacing felt uneven and was mostly quite sedate for a story about revolution. Somewhere around the 80% mark things picked up and I did get engaged until about the 90% mark but otherwise I was pretty disconnected. Also, it sometimes seemed like ideas were included for the “isn’t this a cool idea” factor and they did not add to the overall vision or movement of the plot.

Overall, I was disappointed and that may just be because this was not my type of book or that I was just not in the mood for a slow-paced and abstract sort of fantasy. It succeeded in creating a unique vision but that wasn’t enough to make up for my lack of connection with plot and characters.

Anybody a big fan of the New Weird genre?  If so what are your favorite books that fit into this mold?

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