This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Surviving Sky will be released on June 13, 2023.
It’s Sky Week at Tar Vol On, thanks to a trio of summer releases whose titles end with the word “Sky.” First on the docket is the one that’s been on my TBR the longest: The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao. Floating cities, messy relationships, and an ever-more-dangerous world? Yeah, I’m in.
The Surviving Sky takes place on one of many floating islands, which protect the population from deadly earthrages by flying high above the roiling ground. But the plant magic (trajection) that powers the island is getting more and more difficult, and no one knows why. Even the most powerful among the trajectionists can’t pursue the question too deeply, for fear of losing his sanity—or worse, being accused of losing his sanity and being lobotomized. His wife, herself unable to traject, seeks answers in archeological study of the world below, but few find her course of study promising enough to be worth the risk, with even her husband unwilling to declare public support.
The marital struggles between the two leads and the search for sustainable protection as the power of trajection wanes serve as twin forces driving the novel. It was the interpersonal plot that drew me to the book initially, and I was pleased to see that the narrative eschews easy answers. The plot summary may suggest a controlling husband threatened by his wife’s research, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s no true villain here. Both have their stubborn and selfish tendencies, with all the failings that those entail, but at the same time, they do wish each other’s good, as well as the good of their home. Some of the conflict comes down to character flaws—and there are moments where the reader may want to sit a character down and talk some sense into them—but a lot comes down to different ideas about the wisest course of action, especially when one spouse has access to classified information that the other lacks. Their conflict never feels cartoonish, nor does it paint one the villain and one the victim, nor does it push an unrealistically quick resolution. They’re both largely well-meaning, but bridging the gulf between them requires more than just good intentions.
The investigations into trajection and its alternatives, on the other hand, are more of a mixed bag. Different skill sets and information access sees major characters pursuing various lines of research, from a search for structures that could withstand an earthrage, to development of a battery that could store the power of trajection, to a fumbling exploration into the strange resistance in trajection that comes dangerously close to falling into madness. The first investigation provides a plausible and straightforward entry point into the problem, but plot developments hinder this line of research and push the story toward the latter two.
And neither of the final two lines of research worked as well for me, albeit for different reasons. The battery subplot just felt a little bit underdeveloped–it wasn’t the primary aim of either perspective character, so development stayed mostly offscreen, and when breakthroughs came at key points of the story, they didn’t feel entirely earned. The research into trajection, on the other hand, was the primary obsession of one of the leads, and it develops steadily over the course of the book, with the stakes only getting higher as the study gets further and further from established norms. But that progression pushes this subplot into a heavily mystical direction, which made me as a reader feel somewhat disconnected. I can’t really call it a fault of the book—the mysticism is plenty supported by the plot up to that point—so much as a mismatch between book and reader that made it hard for me to appreciate some of the climactic scenes.
The finish also left the story in a somewhat uncertain position between standalone and series-starter. The conclusion is satisfying enough that I wouldn’t foresee any problem reading The Surviving Sky as a standalone, but I might’ve wanted a few more chapters tying up loose ends. But I believe this is meant as a trilogy-opener, and it’s not one that gives a clear sketch of the main arc to come. That doesn’t necessarily leave it in bad company, and fans of the first book will doubtless pick up the second, eager to see more of a favorite world or character. But there’s not a hook that makes a second book feel vital.
While not every subplot is perfectly executed, The Surviving Sky is a good read and a promising debut. The interpersonal storyline is excellent, and the exploration of magic is carefully built and bound to appeal to those who don’t mind a little mysticism in their fantasy.
Recommended for those who like: messy relationships, Indian-inspired worldbuilding, magic that leans to the mystical.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Published in 2023, Queernorm Setting, Mundane Jobs, and Druids*. It is also written by a POC Author.
*The world here is Indian and not Celtic, but the “Druids” Bingo square includes magic derived from nature, and it’s hard to say that trajection doesn’t qualify.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.