Fran Wilde – Updraft

I try not to be a jerk about covers. Authors usually don’t have a say in their books’ outfits and Tor has a really, I mean really, good track record of providing excellent covers. But this is the type of book where the cover could have been helpful in providing information the text itself doesn’t. The picture is nice to look at but the illustration of the bone towers didn’t help me personally imagine how this society actually lives.  That’s not a cover’s job and the fact that I still don’t quite get how the bone towers work are the author’s failing (or that of my own imagination) but more on that problem below …

updraftUPDRAFT
by Fran Wilde

Published by: Tor, 1st September 2015
Ebook: 352 pages
Series: Bone Universe #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: My mother selected her wings as early morning light reached through our balcony shutters.

In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.
Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.

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If you bait me with “floating cities” long enough, I will bite. I will never fall out of love with Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia, the city in the sky, and I was quite intrigued by the idea of a city above the clouds built into living bone, a city that’s constantly growing.

Kirit Densira wants to become a trader like her mother. All she needs to do is pass her wingtest, a mix of flying, singing, history, and geography. But of course, things don’t go as planned and instead of living her dream and becoming her mother’s apprentice, Kirit is supposed to go to the Spire where the Singers live. It’s the largest bone tower, full of secrets and lies, because the Singers protect the city – sometimes from itself…

With such a wonderful premise, I expected great things. Obviously, the most interesting part that grabbed my attention right away is the world building. Living bone, okay. Gigantic living bone, obviously, if people live in and on it… towers grow new tiers and the more renowned inhabitants live higher up. So far so good. Except no. My very first problem with Updraft was that I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know how things worked, what they looked like. To say that the walls and floor of Kirit’s home are made of bone is one thing. But are they inside a gigantic bone? Do the tiers grow out of a central bone pillar? There are mentions here and there, especially when comparing and contrasting the Towers to the Spire and from that I gleamed some information, but I still don’t have a clear (or even fuzzy) picture in my head of what the Towers really look like.

Putting that big gripe aside, the beginning is really slow. Once Kirit takes her wingtest, however, the pacing gets better and better, and there is more than one scene that left me holding my breath in excitement. Then Kirit reaches the Spire and I felt like I’d been thrown into YA-cliché-land. A lot of things are obvious from the get go – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Kirit has to go through the typical (think Divergent, Harry Potter, what have you) introduction into the world-within-her-world. The Spire has its own rules, its own rituals, and in order to earn her wings as a Singer, Kirit has to go through a series of lessons and seriously freaky tests. This part was fantastic. It takes the tropes of its genre and just rolls with them, but because of the unusual setting, this was still a lot of fun to discover. Now there were some things I found rather ridiculous, but they were consistent with the world Fran Wilde has set up. Singers, unlike the rest of the city, can fly by night. Instead of vision, they use… a different trick. I wouldn’t really consider this a spoiler but for the very careful among you, I’ll leave it at that. That “trick” however made me giggle, it’s so silly.

Another thing I labeled with “silly” (and this bothered me way more) were the rules imposed upon everyone in the bone city. Naturally, living way above the clouds comes with a lot of danger. Should you fall, gods know how much time you have to contemplate your mistake. The towers are also plagued by the skymouths’ migration. These are giant, invisible monsters that open their mouth and eat whatever they can get. A Singer’s job, among others, is to protect the towers from these beasts. So it’s understandable that this society would have strict rules in order to keep people alive. But some  of their traditions are just dumb. When somebody challenges the Spire and dies in the process, it is tradition for the Singers to bring back the challenger’s wings to their family. Tradition dictates that the Singer must not speak during this, except for the traditional words which are always the same. I just can’t understand the purpose of forbidding someone to show kindness, to hug somebody, or even just say “sorry for your loss”. But breaking this tradition is considered betrayal and – guess what – you get executed for that shit! WHAT?!

updraft cover detail

As Kirit discovers the Spire from within, it is obvious that it harbors secrets. It is also obvious that the people in power aren’t really doing their thing for the good of the city. There are intrigues, and lies, and allegiances – this is not a plot twist. What could have been a twist would be the content of these secrets. It is clear from the beginning that the most powerful Singers are lying to the people, are doing something for their own benefit. But when that secret is revealed, I kept asking myself That’s it? Really?! – then, almost as a side plot, another thing about Kirit’s world is revealed that I found much more shocking, and none of the characters really gave a shit. They’re all about “Oh no, Kirit spoke when she wasn’t allowed. She is a traitor and must die”, and Kirit is all “The people must know the truth of this thing that will make almost no difference in their lives” – I just didn’t get it.

All of that said, the book still had that wonderful quality, that flow to it. I started reading a chapter and completely fell into it. The prose sucks you in and, like many good YA novels, just kind of holds on to you, making it hard to put the book down. At the end, all of the really interesting questions remain unanswered, even unasked by the characters, but I am not sure I’ll try the second in the series just to find out whose bones these people live on, why they grow, what they look like or what effect Kirit’s story had on the overall world. There were too many things I disliked or felt were missing from Updraft, and only overwhelmingly fantastic characters could have saved it. Kirit and the rest of them, however, are pretty bland fare, none of them really fleshed out, just a notch above cardboard.

Updraft wasn’t a bad book. Reading it was quite enjoyable at times, but mostly for the action and the descriptions of flight, using gravity, air, and winds in everyday life. The world building was too lacking for my taste, so I’ll wait for the first reviews to come in on the second book before I decide if I’ll give it a try.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 –  Okay with some great moments

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Second opinions (way more positive than mine):

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