Fran Wilde has had me on the fence throughout her Bone Cities trilogy — book one (Updraft) had some issues but I thought it just tipped the needle over into the positive. Book two (Cloudbound) had more issues, which sent the needle just over the line in the other direction, leaving me wondering at the end if the third time (Horizon) would be the charm that saves the series. Having just finished it, I reluctantly have to say it is not. In fact, I’m even more sad to report, Horizon (2017) may have been the weakest of the three. Which is too bad, because there’s a lot to like in this series, but it’s hard to recommend a trilogy that trends downward from an already iffy first book.
Warning, there will be inevitable spoilers for the first two books below; we’re talking deaths, deaths that turn out not to be deaths, Big Answers to Big Questions, and the like. You’ve been warned.
Cloudbound ended with our main characters on the ground, having learned that their city’s towers were the bony ridges/spurs along the hides of tremendously huge creatures and that their particular creature was dying. Horizon picks up not too long after, with the group frantically trying to feed the city before it dies as well as trying to survive themselves while they try to figure out how to get back up to their city to warn it to evacuate before the impending disaster (when the city dies it will roll on its back and destroy their city’s towers). While the first two books were told in a tight first-person POV (book one from Kirit’s, book two from Nat’s), Wilde broadens the perspective here, allowing her characters to split up and create multiple storylines. We see both a ground and city perspective early on. The ground activity I just mentioned. Meanwhile, in the city Macal is trying to keep the community together, even as it continues its downward spiral from book one into inter-tower warfare. Eventually the narrative branches again: one group explores the ground in search of a new home, leading to an encounter with another city; one group prepares for the coming evacuation/refugees; and another group journeys to the city to warn it and begin the actual evacuation, which is made more difficult by the internecine strife.
To begin with the positive, I’ll say again that I love the premise of this whole series — the people making their home in towers of mysterious bone, their lack of knowledge of what lies beneath the clouds or of their own deep past, and the mechanically-empowered flight that allows them to move between towers. It’s wonderfully inventive and evocative, highlighting that sense of wonder in its truest meaning that fantasy can bring to a reader. I also greatly enjoy the predominant themes of the series, much of which center around the ideas of community, responsibility, the role of history/memory/tradition, and conflict resolution by engagement rather than violence or zero-sum politics. The detailed descriptions of engineering are a nice antidote to so much of the hand-waving that gets done in the genre; characters grow (or not) in realistic fashion for the most part — slowly, in stuttering steps, and sometimes begrudgingly; and as throughout the series, Wilde’s prose is clear and fluid. I also appreciated the allegorical (intended or not) nature of the book. The connection between our world and this in the way their constant growth/building has helped weaken and kill their creature (it’s being crushed by the weight of their towers) and the connection between colonialism and their search for a new home in a place that pre-exists them and has its own inhabitants (human and not). Here, for instance, is a nice scene with Kirit musing on their naming a type of creature they just came across:
“Call them groundmouths, until we know better,” Wik answers. He said it as if we were the first here. As if we had any right to name things here.
The broken metal in the ground said we were not the first, by far. The ground hid layers upon layers of evidence that this world had many names for things. Names we could never know.
Unfortunately, these strengths weren’t enough to overcome the book’s weaknesses for me. For one, while Cloudbound felt a little overlong, Horizon felt way too long. Many a time I felt I was just spinning my wheels or taking too long to get to a place I’d known I was getting to for some time. I had to push myself forward pretty consistently past the halfway point, and I’m sure I’d have put it down had it not been the concluding book of a trilogy I was reviewing. Book three echoed yet another issue I had with its predecessor in that while I loved the general concept/setting, I never felt on solid ground with in terms of feeling fully immersed and able to visualize/hear/feel it. Logistics, geography, and scale often felt muddy, I never had a really vivid sense of these creatures or their world — we get some description, but it all felt somewhat misty and disconnected; it never coalesced for me into a fully-felt experience. Somewhat in that vein, it bothered me that none of the characters ever seemed to feel/express what would seem to me to be some pretty big existential questions/angst over learning one is basically a flea on a dog. Finally, without bothering to detail them, I felt that several events/actions/motivations made little sense, were unclear, were too convenient, or seemed too implausible, leading to margin notes that became increasingly annoyed/harsh.
This was a disappointing, frustrating close to a series that had already had its share of disappointment and frustration, but what surprised me was the degree to which the series went off the rails in this final (I assume) book. I noted in my review of Updraft that it felt like a debut novel, which made sense given that it was just that, but what I didn’t expect was that Horizon would feel even more like a debut. I can’t therefore recommend the trilogy, despite its several strengths, but Wilde has shown me enough at least that I would pick up another novel by her and give it a shot.