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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Updraft: Bone Universe #1 by Fran Wilde

Let's start this review with the publisher's summary:

"In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.

Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage. 

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother's side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city's secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever - if it isn't destroyed outright."

The Bone Universe world built by Fran Wilde is truly unique and intriguing. At first one might assume it is somewhat like the cinder towers in The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher. This would be easy to assume if one believed all towers are created equal. They are not, and Updraft is as different from The Aeronaut's Windlass as her living bone towers are different from the towers built of ancient materials in Jim Butcher's world.

In The Bone Universe, people fly from tower to tower on wings that are part hang glider and part da Vinci inspiration. Made from bone and spider silk, the people of the city learn to use them from the age they can walk - perhaps even a bit earlier. It is as natural to them as getting into a car is to us. I do not believe acrophobia exists in the city. Such weaklings would be cast down rather than tolerated I think. The city has an oral history, sung by everyone lest people forget, to decide such things.

The characters are also far different than Butcher's. This story revolves around a 17 year old girl who impatiently waits for her chance to prove to society she is an adult, fully capable and qualified to take her rightful place at her mother's side in the family business. Her mother is one of the most respected traders in the entire city, known to all the towers of the city, and even to the Spire which protects them all.

Kirit and her mother are well respected citizens who enjoy an elite status within their home tower of Densira. Kirit knows of no reason why she won't be at her mother's wing tip on her next trade mission, after her mother finishes an important mission to obtain needed medical supplies for a distant tower, and after Kirit passes the flying tests the city requires her to master before allowing her outside her local "neighborhood."

But when are things ever that simple? Yep, you guessed it. Everything goes sideways on Kirit the moment her mother leaves on her trade mission. And what's worse, I saw it coming from the very first paragraph. In fact, there were no real surprises in this story for me. The plot was not simplistic though. The situation was complicated by many things of which Kirit was not aware. It was merely very straight and easy to follow. Someone with a lot of experience in the genre might not find it a challenging plot, but they would find the story enjoyable.

Here's what you need to remember about Updraft. It is a young adult fantasy. If your idea of really good characters are those in Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, you will be disappointed by this book. In my opinion, the characters in this book are kept simple so a teenager can relate to them. There is the eager young man who wants to join the guard and be a hunter. There is the privileged rich girl who treats Kirit as some sort of upstart peasant. There is the privileged girl's hang-on "yes" girlfriend. It's like a page right out of my high school days - at first.

Things change as the circumstances of Kirit's life change. Things become more complicated as the plot evolves and Kirit has to become a young woman and overcome the obstacles to her future success if not her very existence. But the book never got past simple characters operating in simple geometries lacking any real depth or complication. The bad people were bad. The good people were good. You were either with them or against them. There was a lot of external conflict coming out of these characters, but little internal conflict other than coming of adulthood crisis the protagonist faced. This made all the characters just a little less real than they could have been.

That said, they were absolutely appropriate characters for the book's intended audience. Characters to which most teenagers can relate. In that regard Fran Wilde knows her audience. Of course, you've only the opinion of a man whose oldest child is nearly a decade older than the protagonist on that, so YMMV.

But all that aside, if you want the best reason to read this book it should be for the world Fran Wilde has created: a flying, singing, law-bound world of survivors. Listening to the story left me with many questions about why things were the way they were. And like any good story teller, Fran Wilde did not give out all the answers. Perhaps they will come as the series continues. The only downside to that thought is whether I'll want to invest the time to find out. That's not a slam against the book. I quite enjoyed the story, and I came to care about the characters and what happened to them a great deal. It's just I'm not a young adult, and I'm much more keen in on the The Cinder Spires than The Bone Universe. That's just me though. I encourage you to give the story a read and a listen. Then decide for yourself.

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