The Surviving Sky is an upcoming fantasy novel (June 13) from Titan Books. Written by Kritika H. Rao, it is sneakily post-apocalyptic and features relatable characters and a stunningly complex magic system. I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. The cover is absolutely gorgeous!
What is The Surviving Sky about?
This Hindu philosophy-inspired debut science fantasy follows a husband and wife racing to save their living city—and their troubled marriage—high above a jungle world besieged by cataclysmic storms.
High above a jungle-planet float the last refuges of humanity—plant-made civilizations held together by tradition, technology, and arcane science. In these living cities, architects are revered above anyone else. If not for their ability to psychically manipulate the architecture, the cities would plunge into the devastating earthrage storms below.
Charismatic, powerful, mystical, Iravan is one such architect. In his city, his word is nearly law. His abilities are his identity, but to Ahilya, his wife, they are a way for survival to be reliant on the privileged few. Like most others, she cannot manipulate the plants. And she desperately seeks change.
Their marriage is already thorny—then Iravan is accused of pushing his abilities to forbidden limits. He needs Ahilya to help clear his name; she needs him to tip the balance of rule in their society. As their paths become increasingly intertwined, deadly truths emerge, challenging everything each of them believes. And as the earthrages become longer, and their floating city begins to plummet, Iravan and Ahilya’s discoveries might destroy their marriage, their culture, and their entire civilization.
While the novel has flavours of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), it is also an entirely fresh and new concept, both for apocalypses and fantasy.
The apocalyptic aspect is somehow both in the background and a major component of the story. It’s different from usual apocalypses because it deals less with a collapse and more with nature becoming too much for humans to live within. We don’t see a lot of post-apocalyptic tropes (like raiders), but there are mutated animals, technology/history from the past that becomes unearthed, and people surviving on small plots of safe land (in this case, in the sky). In a sense, this novel is like Waterworld. If you like fantasy and apocalypses, this is a great blend.
It’s also a non-Western fantasy with normalized LGBTQ+ representation. I also enjoyed that the main characters were in their thirties and were dealing with a martial breakdown that wasn’t based on abuse or cheating.
The magic system is revealed as the story progresses – in fact, that’s kind of the point of the novel, to learn how the magic functions – but in basic terms, there are people called architects who can control plants and who help the massive trees (which comprise the core of the flying cities) to float. A significant part of the plot deals with the magic and how it functions, so I won’t explain any of it, but if you’re the sort of person who really really likes magic systems, then do I have the book for you!
The Surviving Sky has the most detailed, intricate, well-thought-out and intense magic system I have ever encountered in fantasy. I believe it’s because the magic system is not only fantastical but rooted in physics and Hinduism. Aside from the marriage plot, most of the novel is based on the characters developing a deeper knowledge of the arcane. They perform a sort of magic archaeology to uncover facets of the magic that they don’t completely understand but still use in their everyday life. The amount of thought, research, and focus that must have gone into crafting this by the author is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s deeply impressive.
Personally, I’m not a nerd for magic systems, so while I was impressed with the magic, I did find it a bit overbearing in terms of pushing aside other aspects of the novel that I was more interested in. But, if you’re a total nerd for magic systems, you NEED to, you HAVE to read this book!
The two main characters are well-developed, and their marriage breakdown is interwoven with the situation of the novel as well as their own personal issues. Their relationship, like the magic system, was complex and layered, with situations that made sense and the type of argument or tension you’d see between two people who love one another but aren’t sure why their relationship isn’t working. Or they do know but refuse to talk about it. It’s relatable and realistic.
Yet, the side characters could have been fleshed out a bit more as I only knew them by their familial or professional relation to Ahilya and Iravan (versus as people). I also could have had some more backstory scenes with the main characters themselves, such as more flashbacks to them as a new couple or when their life together was working. There were some of these, but more would have made me really feel their relationship deeper.
I could have also used a bit more about the society of the Ashran (the floating city). How do they dispose of trash in the flying city? It’s alluded to that a lot of stuff is reusable or recycled, but how does the plumbing work? Where does clothing get made? Where do they get water from? Are they all vegetarians? How does housing work? I just wasn’t sure how the council of the city was ruling the entire place because there was no one on that council whose professional focus was everyday affairs.
That being said, the pros definitely outweigh the few critiques (some of which are my personal preferences)! I highly recommend the novel for people who love very detailed magic systems, decidedly non-Western approaches to fantasy, realistic characters, and flying citadels! Oh, and there are also fun creatures called yakshas that are massive mutated animals!
The Surviving Sky is releasing on ebook, paperback, and audiobook on June 13, 2023. You can pre-order the novel on Amazon and from your local bookstore.
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