Wednesday, February 24, 2016

REVIEW | Fantasy | Steal the Sky by Megan O'Keefe

Steal the Sky by Megan O'Keefe
Publication Year: 2016
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: The Scorched Continent #1
Awards: NA
Format: Advanced Reader Copy from Angry Robot.  Receiving the book for free does not impact my review.
Narrator: NA

WHY?:  Flying Sailing Ships!  The blurb gave me Firefly feels.

SYNOPSIS: Aransa is a mining city in an environmentally hostile area known as the Scorched. At one point it was apparently a tropical paradise but war or some similar event in the past has wiped out all vegetation. What the area is rich in is Selium. Sel is a gaseous substance that creates energy and supports flight and it can be manipulated by people known as Sel-sensitives. Because of their abilities, Sel sensitives have become almost a slave caste - they are forced to work in the mines or in other dangerous and subservient positions. And at least one of them isn't gonna take it anymore. Unfortunately for petty conman Detan, he gets sucked right into the middle of a couple of clashing plots along with his sidekick Tibs and the City Watch Captain Ripka.

It is almost certainly a mistake to go into a book with expectations that it will be like this-thing-that-I-love-so-hard.  It is a thrill when it actually is like the thing but more often than not, it is its own beast and that's okay.  Okay but disappointing.  Steal the Sky was not Firefly in book form.  There isn't even a single character that really evoked the Firefly cast though if you squinted real hard Detan and his not-really-sidekick Tibs bare a passing resemblance to Mal and Zoe.  But then they call people chums and women lasses and I was wondering if I'd strayed into the middle of Bertie Wooster's holiday in Scotland.  The point is, I had unfair expectations.  Don't make my mistake or you might find yourself disappointed.

Because I was slightly disappointed in Steal The Sky.  Partly because of my confession above - totally my fault - but partially because the book had a LOT of promise which wasn't fulfilled. The story and characters just never quite gelled for me.  

But let me back up and talk about what did work.  The world building and the magic system was very, very cool.  The city of Aransa worked as a colorful and rough-and-tumble backdrop for the story. An island of survival in the middle of a deadly desert. It was conquered or established (or something) by Valathea but it is no longer under that country's or far off city's rule.  Maybe.  I found the political plot line very confusing and at least for me it could have used a lot more fleshing out.

It was fine though because the heart of the story is really the sel sensitives and their plight. They have this special and very cool ability but instead of it giving them power in society, they are basically enslaved. They do perhaps have more financial stability than the other poor people but they risk their lives every day and are not at all compensated the way they should be.  No one really wants to admit they are sel sensitive, especially if their abilities are strong and they can manipulate Sel in more complicated ways than just moving it.  Those talents mean they are dangerous and it does make them powerful. So this is kind of a rebellion story.  It starts with a lone woman, Pelkaia, a very strong sel manipulator who has a gripe with the powers that be.  By the end of the book, her personal vendetta has gotten mixed up with a larger political play and she may have, in fact, started a revolution.

Pelkaia is an enigmatic figure throughout the book, partially because we so rarely see her being herself - she is usually masquerading as others behind a sel mask.  I liked that she was a character whose motives may be understandable and sympathetic but who takes things a little too far into the dark side.  The other main characters are as mentioned, Detan who is a con man, petty crook and all around okay guy.  Ripka is the Watch Captain of Aransa with a reputation for being tough but fair and very well respected.  She and Detan have crossed paths before.  Beyond these three perspective characters, the cast is rounded out by Tibs, Detan's laconic sidekick and the big bad antagonist Thratia who seems to have some shady political goals and is throwing her weight around in Aransa using her fearsome reputation.

I liked the characters okay but really wanted more from them.  I was very intrigued by Ripka but the narrative ended up spending very little time with her and she is never really fleshed out.  Detan was inoffensive but I never really got a sense of who he was despite the fact that most of the narrative sticks with him.  Basically, all the characters have aspects that feel real but they never felt real as a whole.  This unfortunately bleeds into their relationships.  Detan gets all worked up when Ripka gets in trouble and risks his life to save her but they don't really interact all that much in the book and the book in no other way makes it clear that they are any more then acquaintances so it feels odd.  I could've gotten behind a few hints of romance around the two - I love a good bad-ass female rule follower-free wheeling con artist pair up but the author doesn't really go there. I think?  Detan seems to have strangely sentimental feelings about many of the female characters so it's hard to know.  

Beyond the characters not totally working, I also thought the pacing was a tad slow and the tone a little too serious.  I wanted wisecracking wit and mad-cap escapades and it feels like the book was set up to have those things but it just didn't.  It's not grim-dark or anything but it doesn't get close to the light and airy concoction that could have made this akin to a heist book.

The bottom line is that this really felt like a debut novel. One with promise but needing a good bit more polish and practice.  It is not bad by any means and was a solid three star read for me.  It may have snuck up to 3.5 if I hadn't had those Firefly expectations.  I'll be interested in what Megan O'Keefe writes in the future.

FINAL VERDICT:  This book was an enjoyable fantasy novel with a lot of promise that just didn't quite deliver on that potential.  I will keep a look out for Megan O'Keefe's future books but not obsessively so.  3 out of 5 stars.

Other Opinions Do Exist:  Beauty in Ruins |  Lynn's Book Blog |

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