April 23, 2023

Review: Untethered Sky

Untethered Sky Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella started out strong, but fizzled away at the end. Part of the problem was that the stakes dropped to almost nothing about halfway through: our protagonist, Ester, attained her goal of becoming a "ruhker" (training and flying a giant raptor called a roc) and using her roc, Zahra, to kill manticores--the mythological monsters that blight the kingdom of Dartha--and there's not a lot that happens after that. There are some feeble stabs made in the direction of letting go of the hate and obsession that has ruled much of Ester's life (a manticore killed her mother and younger brother when she was thirteen, setting Ester on the path to becoming a ruhker), but that storyline isn't explored as well as it could have been.

What keeps this book on the "recommend" side of the ledger is the lovely writing and the fascinating information about training and flying birds of prey. It's made clear early on that as much as Ester loves her roc, Zahra does not love her back; indeed, at the book's climax, Zahra meets a wild male roc and simply leaves Ester behind without looking back. Ester knows their relationship is unequal:

So I watched and guarded Zahra with all the paranoia of a jealous bridegroom. My love was entirely possessive. When you love a person, you are expected to give them their freedom, but when you love a monster, you keep it caged. A monster can't love you back, so there's none of the guilt of a reciprocal relationship. You're already subjugated. You're already holding yourself captive in a cruel way, so you justify whatever unusual bonds you level in return. I bargained with Zahra in my heart. I've already given you everything of myself. I've left my home, I've braved death, I've devoted myself to your care and training. I hunt with you and for you, I deliver all the bloodshed you crave, I worship you with my weak human frailty. In return, you must stay. You must make me worthwhile. You must be leashed to this cadge and kept in this pen, and you must never fly free as you were born to do, because I will never be free of you either, and we are partners in our captivity, each perfectly monstrous in our own way.

There's some fascinating ideas here, but they're not really explored. I wonder if this story would have been better at a longer length, because what we've gotten seems to be a bit superficial. Still, there's enough to make this worth your time.

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