Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
Untethered Sky is a mostly enjoyable fantasy novella by Fonda Lee, but one whose brevity I felt prevented it from reaching its full emotive potential. This is, however, something I often feel upon reading novellas (though not always as per my 5-star review of The Lies of the Ajungo), so readers of this review should keep that in mind. Some of us, it appears, are just generally not built for the form, though exceptions can always break through.
The novella is set in a rough-hewn, pre-industrial world where much of the non-urban population lives in fear of large predators such as wolves and lions. The most dangerous by far, and thus the most feared, is the manticore: tall, fast, man-eating carnivores whose worst trait is the manner in which they go into a killing frenzy when they hear screaming. Given that screaming, as one might assume, is a common response to witnessing a manticore rip the entrails from a loved one or traveling companion, such frenzies are not infrequent.
To guard against them, the empire has created a cadre of “ruhkers”, warriors who train and quasi-bond with the only predator big and tough enough to kill a manticore: the roc. Taken from the nests at a very young age, the giant birds are trained one-on-one with a ruhker, much akin to the sport of falconry. Save that rather alighting on their partner’s arm the rocs need a custom-built platform towed behind their human’s chariot. Once trained to hunt, the ruhker drives them out to where the predators are, frees their roc, then basically drives around acting like bait. When the predator attacks, one trusts/hopes their roc will have enough time so that the predator rather than their human becomes the prey (this isn’t always the case; being a ruhker is a dangerous job)
Untethered Sky is told via the first-person POV of Ester, whom we first meet at as an 18-year-old ruhker apprentice when she is introduced to Zahra, the fledging who will become her hunting partner. The book then mostly moves forward in time, with major leaps of months or years between sections divided into training and experience: Fledgling, Hunter, Captor, Savior. The culminating big action scene is the Great Hunt, a massive joint action by the empire’s soldiers and ruhkers to wipe out as many manticores in one fell swoop as possible. The “cast of thousands” action is followed by a much more focused and person segment of action.
The exceptions to the mostly linear progression of the story are a flashback that shows us why Ester is so obsessed with killing manticores — she survived a horrific attack at her home — and some ominous flash forwards via lines like: “That’s how I wanted to remember the three of us. Not marred and bowed by tragedy, but young and joyous. What I would give, to return to those days . . .
That trio is made up of Ester and her fellow ruhkers and best friends Darius and Nasmin. Darius is uncomfortable around people and quiet, while Nasmin is outgoing and strong voiced. Watching their relationships form and then morph over time is one of the pleasures of the novella. Lee has an ease and naturalness in her depiction of friendship and early romance, the ups and downs of both, the moments of anticipation and aspiration, of joy and jealousy. The same holds true with the relationship between the ruhkers and their rocs, which is deep and powerful. I called it a quasi-bond because this isn’t the sort of typical fantasy animal-human mind-meld kind of bond such as one sees for instance in the PERN dragon books or the WHEEL OF TIME, to name just two of many such instances. Lee, through Ester, is always quick to remind us that these are, at their heart, wild creatures and though a relationship does form, it is one that never does cross over the barrier between species. Ester and her colleagues have a respect for the wildness of their partners, and for the natural world as a whole. Even as Ester kills wolves to protect people, she recognizes they are only doing what predators do and mourns the necessity of killing them.
The writing is always precise and sharp and the pace is nigh on perfect for the narrative’s intent and form, such as the manner in which Lee dispenses with long periods of what Ester tells us would simply be “repetitive” and dull training. The narrative is tight and effective, the prose smooth and strong, so it’s an easy book to recommend.
As for why it falls a bit short of its full potential for me, there are a few reasons. One minor quibble is that the foreshadowing felt a bit too much for me, though since these were only a single sentence dropped in only periodically, it wasn’t as noted a huge issue. A larger problem was that while on an authorial level the story was well written, on a narrative/voice level Ester’s recounting of the tale felt a bit too flat and methodical. That, combined with the form’s brevity, led to the emotional payoffs being less than I felt they could have been, particularly past the early stages when relationships either burgeoned or deteriorated. And one side plot involving the manticore that killed most of Ester’s family felt unnecessary and somewhat out of place. These issues didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book, but they did mean I felt not fully satisfied by the end. On the other hand, if you’re a general fan of the novella form, chances are you’ll be far less bothered by them.