Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Updraft by Fran Wilde

updraftI bought this book because it’s shortlisted for the Nebula award, and I thought it looked intriguing. My copy is a US hardback edition, so I don’t know if it’s available in any other printed form in the UK (you can get a Kindle version). It’s listed as ‘Fantasy’ but I could easily make a case for it being science fiction – set in a world with a very different ecosystem, to be sure. There’s nothing here that requires the presence of the supernatural. People fly, but their wings are man-made and without them, gravity kicks in and they fall.

This novel is written using the iceberg method – so much so that you think you might be picking up the second or third in a series, but you’re not. The author merely knows a lot more than she’s telling you, and you have to do the usual (science fiction) detective work to understand what is happening. Of course, it helps that this is a society with social strata and secrets, which our heroine and reader proxy Kirit Densira seeks to learn and to expose.

Daughter of a successful trader, Kirit wants to pass her wingtest and join her mother in the family business. But she makes a mistake, breaks Tower Law, and finds herself fighting for both her wings and her identity, as she is pulled into the secretive and deadly world of the Singers, the priest-like enforcers of the Laws.

In this world, people live in organic towers which soar above the clouds and keep growing, gradually filling the lower levels with thickened bones. The higher you are in a tower, the higher your status; but if you can’t fly, you’re nowhere. And even if you can fly, you have to watch out for dangerous predators and keep your wits about you.

Updraft features the kind of imaginative world-building that you’d expect from the very best of the fantasy genre, but unlike a lot of fantasy (I’m looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire), this is also incredibly pacy, with a story that fair rockets along, leaving you breathless in its wake. If you enjoyed last year’s success, The Goblin Empero, you will certainly love this as much as I did. And even if The Goblin Emperor was too fantasy-like for you, Updraft, as I said above, feels a lot like a certain type of science fiction (Katherine Kerr’s Snare is a good comparison), so should appeal to those wary of the usual fantasy fare. There are no dragons or elves herein.

Entertaining and intriguing as this was, I do hope there are more to come.