Skyward by Brandon Sanderson YA fantasy book reviewsSkyward by Brandon Sanderson YA fantasy book reviewsSkyward by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson’s new young adult science fiction novel, Skyward (2018), replaces his intricately detailed fantasy magical systems with equally detailed dogfights between one-person starship fighters of the humans living on the planet Detritus (it’s as bleak as it sounds) and the starships of the alien Krell. The Krell chased a fleet of human spaceships to Detritus decades ago and have pinned them down on the planet since, frequently bombarding the humans with attacks that threaten to wipe out the colony, where people primarily live underground for safety.

Spensa Nightshade’s father died years ago during a major battle against the Krell. Though other families of spaceship pilots are lauded by the colony, “Chaser” Nightshade was accused of being a coward, fleeing the Krell forces and being shot down and killed by his own flight in retribution and as an example to others. That cowardice label has lasted through the nine years since his death, continuing to haunt his family and his daughter, Spensa. As a result, at age eighteen she’s a rebellious hothead with a huge chip on her shoulder, and a fiery determination to win a place to be trained as a starship pilot and prove herself as the bravest fighter, ever. Defiant isn’t just a description of the human’s military forces to Spensa; it’s deeply ingrained in her nature.

Unfortunately for Spensa, there are influential people who are equally determined to see that she does not get a chance to join the Defiant Defense Force’s flight school or graduate as a pilot, convinced that the “defect” in her father is also in the daughter. When she manages to land one of the few spots in the program ― barely, through a combination of hard study, stubbornness and luck ― her troubles aren’t over, by a long shot. Denied the right to live in the school’s dorms or even use the cafeteria, Spensa sets up house in a cave where during a previous excursion she had found a very old, damaged starfighter with (it turns out) a very quirky AI named M-Bot.

Spensa divides her time between her pilot training classes and trying her hand at secretly repairing the old Starfighter. But the Krell are gradually decimating the human starfighter forces, and Spensa and her classmates are thrown into action against the Krell far sooner than they are ready to handle it.

After a slightly weak beginning ― Spensa’s brash character and simmering anger got old for me, though I had to admire her sheer determination and refusal to ever give up ― Skyward gains traction and briskly works its way up to an impressive finish. Most of the time in between is spent with training in the semi-military space pilot school for Spensa and her group of ten eighteen-year-old classmates, and with frequent individual spacecraft battles with the Krell aliens. If that sort of story sounds appealing, Skyward should be just the ticket. Though the main emphasis is on action, Skyward also includes some deeper insights into character, and has some excellent points to make about what truly constitutes bravery and cowardice.

A solid dose of humor is provided by an odd cave creature that Spensa adopts as a mascot of sorts, delightfully naming it Doomslug, and by the personable AI M-Bot.

“Not that I require affirmation of any sort, as my emotions are mere simulations … but you are listening to me, right?”


“I’m listening,” I said. “I’m just thinking.”


“That is good. I should not like to be maintained by one who lacks brain functions.”

The characters in Skyward are, for the most part, familiar types, but they’re still engaging, not to mention quite diverse in their internal and external makeups. Not just Spensa but several of her classmates grow and change significantly through their experiences. The plot is enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, but a few twists toward the end shed a surprising new light on several characters, as well as the ongoing wars with the Krell.

The ending of Skyward is open-ended, since this is the first book in Sanderson’s new SKYWARD series, but the main plot threads reach a reasonable stopping ― or at least pausing ― point, while leaving me anxious to see where the series goes next. I’ll be watching for the sequel, Starsight!

~Tadiana Jones

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson YA fantasy book reviewsWhen reading books by Brandon Sanderson I often (not always) have the slightly disconcerting feeling that I am reading the same story that once appeared in an Orson Scott Card book, but about a full grading step lower. In the case of Skyward, the cognate book is Ender’s Game, an A+ science fiction story if ever there was one, and, true to form, Skyward comes in for me at the A-/B+ level. (I don’t want to overstate the similarities; this is not a cut-and-paste job like The Sword of Shannara is to The Lord of the Rings. But I think anyone who reads both Skyward and Ender’s Game will see what I mean.)

Skyward is set on another planet in what probably qualifies as a dystopia, although not a “government-tyranny” dystopia; instead, humans live underground because aliens known as the Krell attack them and bomb them back into the stone age, more or less literally, at regular intervals. Why the Krell do this, and even who or what the Krell really are, is not known. Human society is based around defense against these attacks, and, accordingly, the highest-status occupation is to be a fighter pilot.

The story’s main character, Spensa, is defined by her determination to become one of these pilots — partly for status, but mostly to reclaim her family honor. Her father, known by his pilot callsign Chaser, was the greatest pilots of his generation — but in a climactic battle against the Krell he abandoned his comrades and fled, eventually being shot down by his own fighter wing for his cowardice.

That’s the story, at least, but Spensa has never believed it — and, true or not, she is absolutely determined to overcome being the daughter of a “coward,” take up her father’s mantle, and fight the Krell. She succeeds in getting into the pilot training program through determination and the intervention on her behalf of one of her father’s former comrades — in fact, the man who shot him down — albeit without the perks of on-base residence that her classmates share. So, to avoid the trek from the surface base to her mother’s home (miles underground) she decides to live in a cave she discovered while exploring — convenient not only for its location but because it contains something so unusual and valuable that it could change everything: an ancient spaceship. Not only does that mean she might have a ship of her own — if she can figure out how to repair it, perhaps with the help of a friend — but it seems to have technological capabilities so far beyond the current tech level of her home world that it raises all kinds of questions about what has happened to human society and why.

Unsurprisingly, we get training montages, heroic fighter-pilot deeds, and a climactic battle against the Krell — but the result of that battle is quite surprising, and obviously functions as a springboard into a series of books, SKYWARD, that Sanderson has planned around these characters.

Overall, Skyward is a good read and a lot of fun; if you like Sanderson’s other books you’ll like this one. (And if, somehow, you haven’t read Ender’s Game — go read that first.)

~Nathan Okerlund

Published in November 2018. From Brandon Sanderson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Reckoners series, Words of Radiance, and the internationally bestselling Mistborn series, comes the first book in an epic new series about a girl who dreams of becoming a pilot in a dangerous world at war for humanity’s future. Spensa’s world has been under attack for decades. Now pilots are the heroes of what’s left of the human race, and becoming one has always been Spensa’s dream. Since she was a little girl, she has imagined soaring skyward and proving her bravery. But her fate is intertwined with her father’s — a pilot himself who was killed years ago when he abruptly deserted his team, leaving Spensa’s chances of attending flight school at slim to none. No one will let Spensa forget what her father did, yet fate works in mysterious ways. Flight school might be a long shot, but she is determined to fly. And an accidental discovery in a long-forgotten cavern might just provide her with a way to claim the stars.


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  • Nathan Okerlund

    Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.

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