Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee: A Review
The author of the Green Bone Saga goes small to write about big monsters.
Note: I received this ARC from Tordotcom in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads. If you like the book, consider doing so too as this really helps authors.
Fonda Lee, author of the notably chonky Green Bone Saga, has written a comparatively bite-sized novella about a giant mythical bird, and this begs two questions: does the Fonda Lee magic work in novella form? And how awesome is a book about a monster bird of prey hunting other monsters? I won’t keep you in suspense, because the respective answers are yes, and pretty damn awesome.
This novella takes place in the fictional kingdom of Dartha, inspired by Ancient Persia (Lee herself has said in an interview that it’s specifically inspired by Ancient Persia during the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great; history nerds, don’t say I never do anything for you). In this kingdom, birds from Ancient Persian myth are real: specifically giant eagle-like birds of prey called rocs and something called a manticore (more of whom later). These rocs are trained by rukhers, who devote their lives to looking after the birds so the kingdom can be protected from standard predators but most of all from the aforesaid manticores (honestly, I will come to them).
Enter our main protagonist Ester, a young Darthan woman. Ester has just been given her roc, and she must learn to train it, earn its trust and hunt with it if she is to achieve her ambition of being a proper rukher – and killing a manticore (for which she has personal reasons to hate, reasons I won’t reveal here because it spoils an early scene, even though some of the press around this has revealed it… when will people learn? Rant over). This is essentially a coming-of-age story, then, where the coming of age involves a potentially lethal confrontation with an eagle who’s taken too many growth hormones.
The first thing to say here is that one of the key selling points of this novella, and one which gives it a refreshing patina of originality, is that this is not your normal fantasy animal bonding story. Unlike every dragon book ever, there is no emotional or telepathic or soulful understanding with this giant monster. In fact, to be honest, just like a real bird of prey, Zahra – Ester’s roc – doesn’t really give a toss about her. Ever. There will be no moments of understanding when they look deep into each other’s eyes. No hand, sorry, claw holding. At best, all Ester can hope for is that Zahra will come to tolerate her as a source of food. Many cat owners will understand this deeply.
This might sound a very bad narrative choice – where is the emotion? Where is the growth? But trust me, it’s a genius move. First, because it creates a hell of a lot of tension. Those early training scenes I could feel my teeth set on edge, as Ester navigates the tricky task of learning to be around a bird that could kill her in a nanosecond with one lazy swipe of its claw. This tension never dissipates, as the reader is eternally wondering whether Zahra will finally get bored and fly off and ruin Ester’s years of effort.
Second, it allows Lee to offer up an intriguing character study: Ester is obsessed; obsessed with the bird, obsessed with becoming the best rukher she can; and this comes at the cost of a normal life and arguably normal human relationships. Time and time again Lee returns to this juicy narrative theme of what it’s like to love something that doesn’t love you back, and whether keeping that thing captive is morally acceptable even if you are obsessed with it. Sometimes we see this strange relationship in poetic, romantic terms, Ester practically swooning over Zahra. But in perhaps the best lines of the novella – which I won’t repeat verbatim here so as not to spoilt their impact (they’re that good) – we see her admit to a more realistic assessment of what she is doing with her life and her soul – the idea that she is captive, not just the bird; and maybe in doing so she is just as monstrous.
If that all sounds nice and deep and you were just here for the monster action, however, then fear not, because as anyone who has read the Green Bone Saga knows, Fonda Lee does wild kinetic, electric action scenes just as well as she does deep character study. Rather than super-powered martial arts scenes, however, we get monster birds swooping out of the sky to attack monsters on the ground, and that is just as awesome as it sounds. Lee’s tight, delicate control of movement and drama is on display here; these scenes are breathless and awe-inspiring.
Which brings me to the other monster, the one Ester and Zahra are mainly hunting. The manticore. Another monster from Persian myth, it is a terrifying beast that stalks villages and causes chaos wherever it goes. I won’t describe it here because it’s worth coming across it fresh, but from the moment it is introduced in a creepy early scene of slaughter you realise you are in the presence of true pant-wetting, bed changing terror. It seems to emanate evil, so much so that you want to believe the citizens of Dartha when they claim it is the work of demons itself. Maybe I’m a sucker for scary monsters, but this gave me chills whenever it crept up, even when I was fairly confident it was about to get destroyed by a massive bird. The manticore is not the star of the show, because that honour still goes to Zahra the roc, but it is one of the most memorably terrifying monsters you are likely to come across this year, and its presence elevates every action scene in the book.
What of the other human characters? Ester has a potential human connection, which offers another way to examine the damage her toxic bird relationship has on her life, and she has a friend, whose choices will have a massive impact on her world. But this is not really a book about other humans, just as it’s not an opportunity for worldbuilding (the kingdom of Dartha is as vivid as you’d expect from the woman who gave us Janloon, the city you’d swear was real, but it’s not drawn in any great detail and nor should it be in this slender tome). This is a book about a woman’s relationship with her giant bird, and the ways in which this is good and this is bad. And it’s a book about monsters attacking other monsters. In both ways, this will stay with you, and offers more evidence, if evidence was needed, that Fonda Lee is a storyteller we must follow wherever she goes.