Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, started out as yet another dystopian YA-novel filled with all the usual familiar tropes that normally entails. A teenage main character. Check. The ‘chosen one’ with a special gift. Check. An oppressive regime that needs to be overthrown. Check. So basically nothing really new to see here then, right? If it wasn’t for the utterly fascinating setting I might have given up on the novel at around the midpoint and that would have been one of the biggest mistakes I could have made.
The world-building is utterly fascinating. Updraft is set in a world where people live high above the clouds in a city consisting of towers of living bone growing ever upwards. The society is based entirely around flight and your status in the hierarchy is determined by the height of your living quarters in the towers. The highest tiers are reserved for the most important people. Getting your wingmark is an essential rite of passage and even the laws are tied to flight. Lawbreakers have to literally carry the weight of their misdeeds around with them in the form of bone chips detailing the laws broken tied to their bodies. The more severe the crime the heavier the chip and the worst of the lawbreakers are sacrificed to the city, cast down into the clouds without the benefit of wings.
The main protagonist, Kirit Densira, is a headstrong seventeen-year-old girl who fights for what she believes in and doesn’t know the meaning of defeat. When she ignores the Law and comes face to face with a skymouth, one of the world’s terrifying predators (giant, invisible, tentacled flying monsters), and survives to tell the tale her entire world starts to fall apart. As she uncovers the truth about herself and the traditions and Laws of her society she grows immensely as a character leaving the naivety and innocence of childhood behind.
Updraft takes some time to get going and it’s only towards the end of the second half where it really starts to set itself apart and breaks the bounds of your expectations. As the many layers of secrets and machinations at the core of the Spire are slowly revealed, the pacing picks up considerably and the story is suddenly elevated to another level with an ending that will blow you away and leave you reeling. The slow journey to get there is well worth the effort.
The conclusion makes this a perfectly satisfying stand-alone novel, but I’m glad to see that there are more novels planned in the series. I definitely want to return to this world to discover more about its nature and its mythology. You are left with so many unanswered questions. What caused these people to abandon the land to seek refuge in the sky? What’s the origin of the living towers? I guess those are tales for another time.
I can’t wait to see what Fran Wilde comes up with next. Hopefully the success of Updraft will allow her the freedom to harness the same innovation used in the brilliant world-building to create a plot worthy of showcasing her talents further.
Updraft is an unusual coming-of-age story set in an utterly fascinating and imaginative world. The novel is beautifully written, the world-building is brilliant and after a shaky start the characters turn out to be far more captivating than they first appear. Don’t be deceived by the YA trappings, while much of the story is somewhat predictable and familiar there is also a real intricate depth at play here. If you can persevere past the slow pace at the start you will be handsomely rewarded.
The Rating: 7/10 (Very Good)
Thanks to Tor for providing the review copy.