Unwrapped Sky: An evocative setting, but an off-putting sense of distance

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUnwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson fantasy book reviewsUnwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson 

Unwrapped Sky, the debut novel by Rjurik Davidson, has an evocative setting, an intriguing set-up, and an often lyrical and lovely prose style, but an off-putting distance between the reader and its characters/material works against these strengths, leaving more of a sense of “what could have been” than I would have preferred.

A clear denizen of the New Weird or Urban Weird, Unwrapped Sky introduces us to Caeli-Amur, an ancient city rising out of the dark ages brought about from the legendary God War and its ensuing Cataclysm, one which sank Caeli-Amur’s sister city beneath the waves and left the city peppered with ancient, often incomprehensible technology left by those Gods. Now, long after the Cataclysm and a hundred years after the Minotaurs saved the city from foreign conquest, it is ruled by a handful of Great Houses:  Technis, Arbor, and Marin. The Houses exploit the citizens and rule with a heavy hand, but their power is being challenged by a group of Seditionists looking to overthrow the Houses and put into place their own (not always agreed-upon) vision of a new Caeli-Amur.

The three main POV characters are Maximilian, a dreamer seditionist who hatches a plan to reach the sunken sister city and bring back the secrets of the Magi that went down with it; Boris, a former tramworker whose rise upward in the bureaucracy of House Technis is both rewarding and conflicting; and Kata, one of the city’s philosopher-assassins hired by Technis to infiltrate the Seditionists, an assignment which proves surprisingly difficult for her. Into this mix as well come thaumaturges, minotaurs, tritons, sirens, mysterious “New-men” who come to the city in ever greater numbers bearing new technologies, and a semi-mythical race of insectoid creatures known as the Elo-Telern who had been summoned by the city’s Aediles after the god-war and who had “brought order to the city and with that order untold horrors.” And over all looms the distant threat of the imperial city of Varenis and its powerful ruling mages.

The city setting is lushly surreal and Davidson’s descriptive and creative strengths are often evident, as here, where he introduces one of the Houses palaces:

Halfway along the corridor, tendrils of vines climbed along the walls, at first spidery little things; like great splayed hands, but then thicker, with candle-flowers branching from them replacing the lamps that had hung on the walls. Finally, the entire corridor had become a wild organic mass… [that] opened into a great semicircular theater… The air was redolent with the sweet smells of the flowers’ perfumes. Furnace trees stood like pillars throughout, their bulbs emitting the softest warmth… as the air in the room became colder, the bulbs would emit more heat to compensate… Seats were carved intricately from the aboveground roots of trees and vines that intertwined just so around each other; interlaced as they were, it was unclear to which particular flora the seats belonged. All in all, the theater was brilliantly, carefully tended, construction — a forum of great imagination that could house close to two hundred people.

Sight, smell, a physical sense of warmth — the city is conveyed throughout across a panoply of senses and via a multitude of references to buildings, streets, inhabitants, creatures (spear birds, tentacle leviathans), transportation, and the like, sometimes via long passages as above and sometimes just by quick drop-in references amidst dialogue or narration. But while I appreciated the full and often layered portrait of the city, it all felt a bit too much like a portrait. For all the references to the “workers” and the “citizens,” the city felt strangely uninhabited, those citizens all too invisible or, toward the end when we do see them, all too much like props dropped in like CGI extras in movie crowd scenes. There was, as well, an internal logic either missing or too subtle for me to pick up on in terms of just how this city was functioning, both literally and socially. Neat ideas abounded — philosopher-assassins for one — but they just didn’t fit together or feel wholly organic/thought out. They felt present as simply neat ideas rather than neat ideas born out of the requirements of the city or the story. More briefly, the city never became real for me as a living, breathing city.

The same problem arose with the main characters, who also felt a bit at a remove. One reason may be that they felt that way not only to me as a reader but to the people of the city as well. For all the work they say they do for the “citizens,” they never seem to really interact with any. Part of that is due to plot — the Seditionists are a secret group hiding away after all — so I can cut Davidson some slack on this point, but still they felt as if they moved above reality somewhat. Maximilian is probably the worst example of this, sort of floating through his role as leader of a group of Seditionists. We’re told of his compassion, but save for his interaction with a badly wounded friend, seldom feel it. The same is true of his alleged passion for change.

Kata too suffers a bit from the “floating through events” syndrome. I liked her portrayal at the start, but she began to fade for me over time, and her shift in sympathies moves too quickly and too abstractly for me. And I would have preferred that it had been untethered from romance.

My favorite of the three by far was Boris, though he is also the most despicable. He felt the more alive, the most real, and his simultaneous rise (through the ranks) and decline (as a human being) was perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel. I thought Davidson could have done a bit more with this. For instance, I thought it a mistake to have killed off (not a big spoiler here) one of his old tramworker colleagues because it lent some concrete conflict to his character and also because it was one of the few times we actually saw one of those oft-referenced exploited workers. I have to say though, that while I did enjoy Boris’ character arc the most, I was more than a little disappointed the use of A Rape Too Far — the becoming-far-too-prevalent plot point whereby a character rapes a woman so we as readers “get” that he’s gone past a certain point of decline. I’ve grown weary of the device, but even if the author decides on it, does it always have to actually be a rape?  Why can’t the woman fight him off, or someone interrupt, or the ceiling collapse due to termite damage? Isn’t just the attempt enough to show us what is meant to be shown? I mean, are there a lot of readers out there who would read such a scene and think to themselves, “Wow, I was really prepared to detest this guy once he started forcing himself on her, but luckily there was no penetration, so whew!  He dodged that character bullet!” But I digress.

Thematically, I liked how Unwrapped Sky has such a focus on power, the way it seduces, the way it surprises, the way those who have it want to maintain it or even better grow it, the way it concentrates and diffuses in cycles. And certainly the idea of exploited workers and oligarchies and concentrated power/wealth have their clear resonances in our world, despite our lack of minotaurs, tritons, and sirens.

Unwrapped Sky can stand on its own, but it leaves clear room toward a sequel. One that I’d guess will expand this world (that imperial city, for instance, appears likely to be a major presence). Davidson showed me enough imagination and technical ability so that I’d be interested in picking up the sequel, with hopes that he can better marshal that creativity in a more unified and more focused fashion and that his technical ability will go hand in hand with more passion and more vibrant characters. Recommended with some caveats.

Caeli-Amur — (2015-2016) Publisher: A hundred years ago, the Minotaurs saved Caeli-Amur from conquest. Now, three very different people may hold the keys to the city’s survival. Once, it is said, gods used magic to create reality, with powers that defied explanation. But the magic—or science, if one believes those who try to master the dangers of thaumaturgy—now seems more like a dream. Industrial workers for House Technis, farmers for House Arbor, and fisher folk of House Marin eke out a living and hope for a better future. But the philosopher-assassin Kata plots a betrayal that will cost the lives of godlike Minotaurs; the ambitious bureaucrat Boris Autec rises through the ranks as his private life turns to ashes; and the idealistic seditionist Maximilian hatches a mad plot to unlock the vaunted secrets of the Great Library of Caeli-Enas, drowned in the fabled city at the bottom of the sea, its strangeness visible from the skies above. In a novel of startling originality and riveting suspense, these three people, reflecting all the hopes and dreams of the ancient city, risk everything for a future that they can create only by throwing off the shackles of tradition and superstition, as their destinies collide at ground zero of a conflagration that will transform the world . . . or destroy it. Unwrapped Sky is a stunningly original debut by Rjurik Davidson, a young master of the New Weird.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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