Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson: Glorious World Building muddled up and squandered.
One of the latest release from the consistently impressive Tor books stable, Unwrapped Sky is stunningly realized fantasy novel – written in lush, evocative prose, Rjurik’s debut pushes the boundaries of this genre purely on the basis of his vivid fecund imagination that knows no bounds and has translated into this weird city of Caeli-Amur.
Possibly a worthy successor to the New Weird champions in China Mievelle or Jeff Vendermeer, Rjurik’s imagined city of Caeli-Amur sparkles and entices, apparently running on steampunk technology (Local trams for conveyance?) mixed with ancient magic (the unexplained forces that thrive on the Other Side, the brilliantly wrought up magic system of Thaumaturgy that combines mathematical equations with ideogram puzzles) universities vying for space with weirdly shaped palaces and most of all, the myriad mix of different races that populate this city. The ancients called Elo-Taverns with their immortality and weirdly long spider-like limbs, the Xsanthians who are part fish-part humans, the New-men with their passion for inventing stuff and who love their technologies and their vices like the Andulasian wine. And of course, the magnificent minotaurs ( that lovely cover has probably got half the folks in a tizzy. Minotaurs. In a book. Seriously!) who come from far-off lands to celebrate the Festival of Sun.
So the troubled city of Caeli-Amur – with a rich heritage and a past full of secrets and mysteries – is on the brink of a revolution. “Seditionists”, a bunch of righteous like-minded folks who indulge in pursuit of knowledge and freedom, want to throw away the yoke of tyranny that the ruling Houses have imposed on their lives and free the ordinary citizens. Their schemes and ideas slowly blow out of proportion, setting into action cataclysmic events that threaten the future of this once-magnificent city. The story unfolds through the eyes of three ordinary lives caught up in this political game for power . Boris Autec, a tramworker who desires power and influence and works his way into the nobility within one of the Houses and suffers from an addiction to a strong drug. Kata, a philosopher-assassin ( another cool concept, though I thought it smacked of Mentat-Assassin from the Dune stories a bit) wants nothing but to free the debt that the Houses have placed on her and will do anything to get out of this rat-race for a villa on the countryside. Anything. Maxmillian, a young idealist who joins the seditionist group to do right for this city and its people.
For all the inventiveness of his world-building, Rjurik’s debut sometimes felt like it was losing steam somewhere. The story moves forward in jerks and spurts, buoyed on by the actions and decisions taken by these three morally compromised characters who are weak, shift loyalties and not equipped enough to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. I hated all three characters in equal measure and could never identify myself with them. The prose, while evocative and lush to bring vivid images to the mind about this strange and wonderful city, doesn’t really elicit that feeling of knife-edge tension that should be warning us of the impending disaster about to fall the city. It is a book on politics and the intrigue and the machinations that go behind the power-play that help rule or topple a city has been sufficiently brought out. But this was a political thriller sans much action. Discounting that explosive opening chapter at the Festival of Bulls that feature Kata and the Minotaurs. What began with a bang sadly went out without even a whimper by the end of four-hundred odd pages.
There are several things to love about this book. It’s a multi-layered narrative that peels off slowly and reveals conspiracies, Gods at war and the ability of the human mind, corrupt on power and desire to stoop to any levels. It’s a great new fantastical world and here be Minotaurs. But lack of compelling characters whom we can root for and a narrative through-line that never emerges beyond the potential it showcases in the beginning really is disappointing. While finishing the book was a breeze for me, I was just skimming without really dipping into the bounties. A competent debut that showcases how wildly talented the author is, I have high hopes for Rjurik’s next. But I wasn’t jumping for the moon after finishing this book for sure.