Updraft: A debut novel that succeeds more than not

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Updraft by Fran Wilde fantasy book reviewsUpdraft by Fran Wilde fantasy book reviewsUpdraft by Fran Wilde

I’m of mixed feelings on Fran Wilde’s 2015 debut novel Updraft, which left me at various times enthralled, captivated, curious, and eager to continue. All of which would be great if it hadn’t at other times had me thinking it was too predictable, too familiar, too plodding, and too vague. Thus the mixed feelings, though the balance tipped me over far enough to move on to book two in the series, Cloudbound (I’ll amend this review once I’ve decided whether the sequel and/or the third book, Horizon, justify that perseverance).

Wilde sets her series in a world of bone towers grown ever upward by their inhabitants after a time of turmoil long ago when tower was set against tower. Living above the clouds, movement between towers (or floors of towers) is relatively limited, usually achieved by mechanical flight — once they’ve shown they’ve mastered the difficult skill by passing their road, umm, flight test, young fliers can doff their training wings for finely engineered ones allowing wonderfully free, if ever-risky, travel. Falling is a constant concern, but just as worrisome are the skymouths: giant tentacled creatures that are mostly invisible until you see their gaping maw about to swallow you up. It’s a hard-scrabble existence, towers dependent upon the better fliers acting as traders to move needed goods back and forth, with each tower having a specialty. Overseeing all this is the Spire — home to the Singers. This elite group, both feared and respected, enforce the harsh-but-necessary laws to keep the towers unified and prosperous, defends against the skymouths, remembers the past, and, when necessary, performs the occasional human sacrifice (“lawbreakers” are dropped through the clouds) when the city “roars,” and thus needs appeasement.

Our introduction to this world is via Kirit, a young woman dreaming of becoming a trader as she readies for her first flight test with her best friend Nat. Things, of course, don’t go as planned, and Kirit instead finds herself reluctantly learning to be a Singer inside the mysterious Spire. As she progresses through her training, she uncovers corruption, a hidden history of her people, and host of secrets, some of which may topple the society.

Sequel

To begin with Updraft’s positives, I loved the basic world we’re presented, with these towers of living bone reaching ever higher as the population increases and the lower tiers become less habitable due to the bone growing wider (thus reducing living space). The bone part begs the fascinating question — bones of what? — while the necessity of continuous growth adds a sense of urgency to the whole society. It also works wonderfully as a literal hierarchy — the elites live in the newest, most spacious living spaces at the top and toss their trash “downtower” past the lower tiers, inhabited in cramped and crowded fashion by the less powerful and well off, all of whom are desperate to “rise.” The obvious difficulties and dangers (even ignoring the skymouths) of the society create a strong sense of generalized tension, giving us a society always on the edge of survival, which goes a long ways toward explaining the harshness of both the laws and the penalties for breaking those laws, even as they seem inhumane or unfairly distributed.

The flight itself is another plus. First, Wilde’s decision to make it mechanical rather than fantastical. No waving of wands, no anti-gravity, no flying creatures large and docile and intelligent enough to carry people around. Despite its exhilarating nature, this flight is grounded in physics and engineering, in the quality of the building materials, the skilled reading of wind patterns, the tedium of constant practice, and Wilde does a superb job conveying all that each and every time our characters fly.

Finally, one of my favorite aspects of the storytelling is how Wilde only slowly reveals her world. Rather than a long introductory slog of worldbuilding or a series of intrusive infodumps, the reader learns gradually in fits and starts how this society works — its various factions, its economics, its physicality. All of this makes sense as our narrator, Kirit, of course knows all this so there’s no reason for her to explain it, and Wilde eschews as well the cursed “As you know, Bob…” exposition between two characters who have no need to explain things save for the reader’s benefit.

Which brings us to the downsides in Updraft, because this kind of slow reveal is a tight line to walk, and I can’t say that Wilde always manages. A few times the withholding of information is a detriment, and at others I’d say too much information is withheld, leading to a bit too much abstraction/vagueness and some questions about not how some things work but whether they even could work.

The aforementioned predictability and familiarity are other issues. The reader will rarely be surprised by the turn of events: Kirit ending up in the Spire, her quick rise, the discovery of corruption and criminality at the center of a secretive elite society, etc. Also familiar is Kirit’s “special” nature, which is introduced early on and rears its head on a regular basis as she masters skills far faster than any others in the past. This allows her to take on the villains, who themselves are more than a little disappointing in terms of their competency and clarity of motivation even as the political underpinnings get a bit cloudy.

In the end, Updraft is a debut novel that feels like a debut novel, with lots of issues that detract from the reading experience. But it’s such an inventive world, and Wilde’s prose so clear and fluid, that the positives outweigh the negatives, even if it’s a closer tug of war than one prefers. I’m hoping the sequel keeps the positives and improves in those areas that didn’t quite match the soaring premise.

Published in 2015. Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage. Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City. As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.

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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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2 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    I thought the lack of clarity as to the motives of the villains and the full range of their villainous activities was in service of the planned sequels. At least I’m hoping we get more information in those. The dimensions of the bone towers (and how much they varied) were never quite clear to me, which made many of the scenes hard to visualize. That was probably the biggest problem area. Certainly a very bizarre and improbable setting–maybe the most bizarre since Alan Campbell’s “Scar Night”.

    • I normally would have thought/hoped so as well, but having already read book two before writing this review I didn’t have that sense, and now having finished book three, I’m even less sure it’s intentional

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