Book Review: Updraft (Fran Wilde)

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by Fran Wilde
Tor Books (September 1, 2015)

The subgenre of young adult speculative fiction is on the rise, and one of its new interesting elements is Fran Wilde’s debut novel Updraft. Wilde presents an original secondary world of a city of rising bone towers, connected, less commonly, by bridges, and more frequently by fliers. Those who do not possess their wingmarks, allowing them to travel unaccompanied between towers, might just as well not exist. The “unlucky” have no place in the towers’ life.

Kirit of the tower Densira knows this all too well and yearns to earn her marks in the upcoming tests to become her mother’s apprentice. Becoming a trader as well would mean a life of interesting bargains, adventure, connecting the people and helping the city in times of dire need. However, when Kirit ignores the law and stays outside to watch her mother’s departure to another mission, even though dangerous predator skymouths may be nearby, her life takes a sideways turn.

A skymouth attacks, and though Kirit manages to drive it away with her screams, she has broken the law and must be punished. Along with her, the entire household—her mother, best friend Nat, and his mother—would also receive their punishments and the law chips weighing them down. Kirit and Nat may miss the wingtests, and as if it weren’t enough, the Singers—the city’s highest authority and somewhat mysterious and feared figures, residing in the impenetrable Spire—have taken an interest in Kirit. Her dream of a trader’s life seems to crumble down.

Although the exposition felt a little slow, the novel soon gained a great tempo, and after Kirit’s wingtests and events following them, it was impossible to just set the novel aside for a moment. Wilde can write compelling characters deeply rooted in their world and set them on a path full of discovery, new friendships, and alliances but also treason, dilemmas, and disappointment as well. Kirit is a believable and quite sympathetic protagonist. We can understand why she breaks rules when she does, and wish her success. She is brave and competent, but not without fear or doubt. Especially her longtime friend Nat is very well depicted too, in his stubborn quest after the truth about the Spire.

In a sequel, I would love to see how Kirit and her sympathizers deal with those who had supported the main antagonist. Another feature I liked a lot about the novel was exactly the antagonist, whose reasons for doing what we can see as “evil” were quite pragmatic and aimed at the perceived good of the city, not purely selfish motives. The saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is not far from this case, and we also cannot be sure whether Kirit’s own actions don’t plunge the city into a much worse state, even though we would support her decisions and probably act the same way in her place.

Reading Updraft, a series of questions started forming in my mind and intriguing me. How do the skymouths stay buoyant, and could it be mimicked by the people? What lies at the feet of the towers? Does anyone know? Has anyone ventured down there, if the winds enable it at all? Or does it become so deadly during the descent that the surface is inaccessible? How do the towerfolk acquire the substrate for plants to grow on? Though the worldbuilding was great throughout the whole novel, especially regarding the city’s society and history, these questions were not answered, not even hinted. Yet they did not tie directly to the main plot and perhaps would slow it down instead of enriching it. However, I would love to see them addressed in a sequel. These mysteries would constitute a great fuel for a new story and the world of Updraft would certainly deserve more visits. Luckily for us, the second book titled Cloudbound is on its way to be published and Fran Wilde is working on the third part of the series, currently called Horizon. I’m looking forward to when she invites us into the future installments of this story.

To learn more about the author, read the interview with Fran Wilde published in Issue #09.

Find below a selection of publications by or containing works by Fran Wilde:

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Julie Novakova

About Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, journalist and evolutionary biologist. She started publishing in English in 2013 (The Brass City; The Symphony of Ice and Dust). Before that, she had published three novels and about twenty short stories in Czech. She also works as a reviewer, columnist and interviewer mainly for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.