Falling Sky, Rajan Khanna’s first published novel, is good if familiar post-apocalyptic fun, with plenty of adventure. At 250 pages it’s a good way to spend a couple of evenings or a weekend. Khanna doesn’t explore any new ground here (pun intended) but he has good action sequences and likeable characters.
It is two generations after a virus — the Bug — turned any human infected into an aggressive, bestial killing machine the survivors call the Feral. Ferals breed and care for their young, but they do not demonstrate higher brain function like reason or speech. They exist to kill and eat, and their bodily fluids transmit the disease almost instantly. Most human survivors have taken to the air to avoid the Feral and the threat of infection. Ben Gold inherited his father’s airship, Cherub, and he uses it to guard a group of scientists who are working to create a vaccine for the Bug.
Miranda is the tough, sexy scientist Ben guards most of the time. Ben and Miranda reach a parting of the ways when she tells him she wants to capture and maintain a live Feral, in order to have access to its blood. Ben hates and fears the Ferals, and he can’t deal with this idea, so he takes off. Shortly afterward, he learns that a group of sky pirates have targeted the compound, and goes back to warn everyone. He gets most of the scientists evacuated, but loses his airship to the raiders in the process.
Ben wants to get his ship back, and Miranda wants a safe place to continue her virus work. These needs lead them, together with a group of sidekicks, to the floating town of Gastown. Gastown was an experiment, an attempt at an old-fashioned civilized town, but the sky pirates headquartered in another floating outpost called Valhalla have taken it over. At first, Ben and Miranda think the Valhallans only want the helium that Gastown controlled, but soon they discover that the Valhallans have brought in evil scientists and are studying the Bug too. Unlike Miranda, who wants to find a cure, the bad guys want to weaponize both the Bug and the Feral.
Falling Sky moves along briskly. The Feral are very much like the zombie-creatures in the movie 28 Days Later — basically, fast zombies. Over the course of the book, Ben comes to accept part of Miranda’s argument that the Feral are still human and can perhaps be saved. The main theme is that of survival versus hope, and the risk of clinging to the past. The airship represents safety to Ben, but it is also the only thing left of his family, and he must decide whether it is more important than the people in his life. Khanna also explores the difficulty of re-establishing society. There is Gastown, which was successful until it was invaded, and there is another nascent society off the coast of San Diego, called Tamoanchan. This means “paradise” in Aztec, (and it must be paradise, because they make their own beer, and it’s good.) The Valhallans want a feudal society with Feral slaves and soldiers; Miranda and the people from Tamoanchan, Diego and Rosie, are far more interested in an egalitarian, just and participatory government.
The book provides Ben’s backstory in carefully ladled flashbacks, told in past tense. I had some trouble pegging Ben’s age in this book. Khanna’s choice of first-person present-tense narration slanted it toward YA in my mind. For Ben to have had the adventures he relates, he should be in his late twenties, nearly thirty, but he reads like a twenty-two-year-old and sometimes as young as seventeen or eighteen. Miranda seems younger than she must be, too. I also wondered just how Miranda got an education in science, since there could not be any universities left, but maybe she had scientist parents who tutored her. And while I don’t love info-dumps, one more paragraph explaining exactly what the virus does to human brain chemistry would have been helpful.
Falling Sky has a bit of a checklist feel; Tough Sexy Lady Scientist? Check. Ravening Monsters? Check. Open with a Crisis? Check. Badass Narrator? Check again. Still, it’s lively, the visuals are good and there is plenty of action. It gets a solid three stars from me, and since it ends exactly like Book One of a Series (Check!) I await Book Two with interest.
Ben Gold — (2014- ) Ben Gold lives in dangerous times. Two generations ago, a virulent disease turned the population of most of North America into little more than beasts called Ferals. Some of those who survived took to the air, scratching out a living on airships and dirigibles soaring over the dangerous ground. Ben, a lone wolf, has reluctantly agreed to use his skills and his airship to help an idealist scientist, Miranda, on her search for a cure. Protecting her from Ferals is dangerous enough but when power-mad raiders run rampant, Ben finds himself in the most dangerous place of all—the ground. Ben’s journey leads him to Gastown, a city in the air recently conquered by belligerent and expansionist pirates. Old friends and new enemies are drawn into a struggle that quickly becomes a fight for the fate of the world. Ben must decide to focus on his own survival or risk it all on a desperate chance for a better future.