Review: The Surviving Sky - Kritika H. Rao
Published: Titan Books, June 2023
My Rating: 4/5 stars
I added The Surviving Sky to my list of most anticipated 2023-releases based off nothing but the description alone, and I'm so happy it lived up to that promise.
In this science-fantasy future, devastating perpetuals storms known as Earth Rages have rendered the surface an uninhabitable jungle. The remnants of humanity have taken up residence in the sky, in floating cities built out of plants, arcane magic and the sorcery that keeps them bound together. The people in control of this magic, and therefore the structure of the entire city, are known as architects, and revered by all.
Charismatic, powerful, mystical, Iravan is one such architect. In his city, his word is nearly law, and his abilities are closely tied to his identity. Yet to Ahilya, his wife not born with this magical gift, they are a way for survival to be reliant on the privileged few. She is an archeologist, interested in studying the lives of generations of people before them: those able to survive without magic and in harmony with the Earth below.
With their marriage already on the rocks, a series of mystical events around the city forces the two to question their loyalties towards their personal values vs. each other.
What I loved:
The wonderfully imaginative world that Rao has created already ticked so many of my boxes on paper: a floating city in the sky, plant-based/botanical-magic, the conflict between “the old-ways” and futuristic/progressive science, and the elements of a mythology that I’m not already intimately familiar with (in this case Hindu-mythology and philosophy). Add to that a storyline that focusses on an already established adult couple having to manage their shared history and conflicts, and you have all the ingredients for a winner for me.
The world of The Surviving Sky supports its story, which is essential in a good fantasy-novel. The magic system and setting aren’t just cool window dressing, but lead organically into interesting conversations on the novels deeper themes of identity, class, consciousness and more.
The two protagonists and their rocky relationship are probably going to divide readers a bit, but personally, I thought their dynamic was an interesting one to follow. Yes, both are very flawed and at times unlikable characters and yes, their relationship can’t be called healthy. Then again, with the heavy focus on romance in fantasy, we don’t get to follow already established and multifaceted relationships nearly enough. I really applaud Rao for taking that risk and showing us something unique.
What I didn’t love:
There are some issues, typical of a debut, that kept The Surviving Sky away from its full 5-star potential. Pacing could've been optimized, especially near the midpoint where some of the conflicts began to repeat themselves. Additionally, it was a little heavy on the exposition-through-dialogue when it came to worldbuilding. If you’re familiar with the concept of “butler-dialogue” (one character explaining something about the world to another character, that they should already know, just for the benefit of the audience), Rao employs a very specific variant of that quite often. I might just have been hyperfocussing on it, but there was a trend of arguments and conflict being used as a vessel for exposition. Character would fight amongst eachother and shout worldbuilding information mid-argument. Whilst I appreciate the attempt to incorporate worldbuilding within character-conflict, this felt extremely clunky and unrealistic, and I hope that Rao will find different ways to do this in book 2.
That being said, I had a blast with this novel, can’t stop thinking about this world, and I can’t wait to continue on with this series once the sequel arrives. Highly recommended!
You can find this book here on Goodreads.