One could be forgiven completely for not knowing what to expect from Unwrapped Sky going in. The cover suggests that Minotaur are present, which is true but gives no clues as to the greater substance. The back cover hints at dissent within a city, perhaps violence in said city’s future. But what this book is really about is power, pure and simple. Who has it, who wants it, and what people are willing to do with it when they control it.
Things are changing in Caeli-Amur. The three major houses still show full control on the surface, but their ways are breaking down the common man beyond typical labor problems. New technological marvels can be made, but the magics required to completely them warp those who wield them. Hoarding the secrets of thaumaturgy for their own uses the houses pass along only enough help their goals, withholding the protections the workers using them daily. Strikes are common occurrence, and put down with deadly force. Within this a resistance grows, holed in the relative safety of the underground, willing to stand up to the houses and start a better future. But even the idealist must contend with a power struggle to bring forth their vision.
A dark tale with a new weird vibe, for the first time I actually understand the Mieville comparisons that are inevitably thrown out for any new book that plays games with reality. Not just with its weirdness, of which there is plenty. Mutants coming in from a wasteland, creatures from the other side, minotaurs and sirens. But this is a political tale through and through. Almost every aspect of this book is rooted in the cause of the proletariat class of Caeli-Amur. And it doesn’t hurt that Davidson seems to have Mieville’s talent for turning a phrase. Though more accessible than, say, early Bas Lag books, Davidson’s way with language rises above the average fantasy tale.
While some dark tales are easily summed up with the flippant ‘everyone is an asshole,’ in Unwrapped Sky this isn’t the case. Indeed, each and every major character genuinely seems to and to improve things for all. They all have a heart. But to the last it will always require just one more step up the power chain to make it happen. Within the houses there is the power struggle one would expect from those exploiting the workers. Boris rose from the exploited to work with the houses and wants to make things better for his former colleagues. It genuinely pains him to watch a strike shut down with extreme prejudice. If only the seditionists would calm down and let him work from within.
Kata is the closest thing to a protagonist we see, and she is the least idealistic to start the book. In fact her early chapters make it very hard to root for her later. Yet by the end I wanted so much for her, and was pained when she disappointed me with actions less true. She works with, and works to betray, the dreamer Max, he with grand visions based on philosophies and ideas of unification.
Woven into it all is the life of the city itself. Caeli-Amur itself should be considered a character, and what a character it is! A deep history, multi layered society, still suffering from the abandonment of the gods and the loss of rights of common men. Philosophy is more than a study in this land; for many it is a way of life, for others a path of violence. A corrupted vision of the underground that can’t be explained, the invasion of new-man technology, and there is a threat from the outside only slightly less dangerous than the threat from within. A promise to those who fall in love with mythical cities; Caeli-Amur will join your list of the best.
I have few reservations about this book. At times Max’s story seemed to be watching from the outside toward the end. A pivotal character throughout, he gives the illusion of importance in the second half without actually affecting anything. Though rape is often an act of power vs lust, and this is a tale of power and man’s struggle with it, I do feel the need to put a rape warning out there. I wouldn’t recommend this book so wholeheartedly if it was handled with anything other than realism and respect, but it is hard to read.
As a debut there are few I have read that are better. Political tales seem to be in right now in fantasy. This one joins The Goblin Emperor as books I read within a month that features politics more than action. And if this niche of the genre continues to put out such high quality outings, I say bring on more of it. Let’s have political tales released every month.