Book Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward
There are many (many) contemporary Sci-Fi & Fantasy authors who are better writers than Brandon Sanderson, but I can’t think of any who are nearly as prolific. Factor in the fact that Sanderson’s novels tend to be ridiculously popular, it seems that there’s always something new to take a look at. I don’t begrudge the guy anything personally, as I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sanderson as a person. It’s just that his books are often … flawed. Often in the same ways. And yet, here I am, reviewing yet another Sanderson book (I average about one a year, it seems), because I guess I’m a literary masochist.
In any case, Skyward is Sanderson’s latest novel, a YA Space Opera. Which honestly had me leery, as the last YA-designated book of his I read, Steelheart, was freaking awful. Though on the other hand, Skyward was apparently marketed as a ‘grown up’ novel in the UK– not to mention the book’s premise had me curious. Basically, Sanderson described Skyward as “a boy and his dragon” story, only twisted around into “a girl and her spaceship.”
And I do like me some spaceships.
This said, Skyward is … rough. Particularly in the beginning. The book centers on a girl named Spensa Nightshade (oh come on) who lives on an arid wasteland planet because this is a Brandon Sanderson novel. Seriously, would it hurt the dude to write a book set in a forest? Or maybe on a nice beach? Thankfully, Spensa goes by her pilot callsign “Spin” more often than not.
In any case, humanity on Blasted Wasteland Planet is under siege, living underground in order to hide from the evil aliens who attack any human settlement that gets too large and HEY WAIT THIS IS THE PLOT FROM GURREN LAGANN. Just, y’know, with all the rad stuff like inspirational shouting, giant robots, and bikini girls taken out.
Oh, and also the ship that crash-landed on Blasted Wasteland Planet was called The Defiant, which had my nerdy self arching a brow in turn. (DS9 is the best Star Trek, for the record, but that’s another blog post entirely).
In any case, Spin’s got problems– as apparently her father (a spacefighter pilot) turned tail and ran in the face of the enemy, which got him shot down by his wingmates and branded forever as a “coward.” Which gives means everyone in Spin’s cavern is a huge jerk to her, until she finally aces a placement test to get her into the elite pilot’s academy up on the surface. Aaaand, while on the surface, Spin stumbles across a hyper-advanced, long-abandoned starfighter with its own AI that she dubs “M-Bot.” Short for “Massacrebot,” because Spin is kind of a bloodthirsty weirdo.
In any case, for the rest of the book, Spin must balance learning how to fly with repairing M-bot’s systems while also dealing with her flight-school squadmates, the leader of whom is a stuffy aristocratic jerk but also kind of handsome because this is a YA novel. Things never delve into sappy romance (thankfully), as every couple of chapters Spin and her squadmates have to jump into spaceships to go fight the eeeeevil alien sorties that happen every so often.
On the one hand, the space battles are the highlight of the book. Sanderson is really good at writing deft and punchy action scenes, and in Skyward he applies his usual meticulousness into figuring out how his spaceships work. If The Way of Kings is Sanderson’s take on a Dynasty Warriors game, then Skyward is what happens after he plays Star Fox for twelve hours straight.
The problem with Skyward is, once you start looking past the laser dogfights, things get kind of … dumb. Like, Spin and her squad get sent up into the air during a spaceship raid on their first day of training. Admittedly, they’re just sent up to sort of hover in reserve as decoys, and several characters do mention “hey maybe we should finish training our pilots before they start getting shot at?” buuuut it still reads as pretty dumb. Especially since they mention a starfighter shortage, and you’d think it’d be easier to find somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing, but … eh.
Likewise, Spin’s backstory and attempts to vindicate her family name are … okay-ish motivations, but in the end a lot of it reads like obfuscation and conspiracy just for secrecy’s sake. It’s really unnecessary– every so often the plot gets bogged down with someone calling Spin a coward for some reason or another, and in turn she overcompensates by being this gung-ho weirdo berserker. There’s some business about Spin being inspired by her Gran-Gran’s stories of ancient heroes, in which the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are put side by side with the likes of Conan or Tarzan … and y’know, that’s a really cool idea, playing with the blurry lines between legend and history and … Sanderson doesn’t really do anything with it. Argh.
And that’s the thing. Skyward isn’t a particularly complicated novel, but at the same time Sanderson gets bogged down in a lot of stuff that he really doesn’t have to. “Top Gun in SPAAAACE!” is a hell of a hook, one that practically writes itself. Seriously, just throw in some zero-G volleyball and you’re set. Buuuut, for each plot element Sanderson introduces, it just introduces more inconvenient questions. For example, Spin finds M-Bot in a cave within walking distance of her pilot academy. And somehow nobody else has found the ship before? In a more nitpicky (but still telling) detail, it’s stated that most people on Blasted Wasteland Planet subsist on vat-grown algae and rat meat … but at the same time the flight academy has chocolate cake in their cafeteria. I mostly note this because chocolate inappropriately showed up in the last Sanderson book I read. Makes me wonder if he knows where chocolate even comes from. But I digress.
Complain and nitpick as I may, I … didn’t hate Skyward? Admittedly, I went into the novel with the absolute lowest of expectations. The plot and setting are both overthought and not thought out enough, and the dialogue can often come off as flat … but at the same time, there are many little moments where Skyward legitimately shines as a novel. As I mentioned before, the dogfight sequences are genuine page-turners, and in turn there are a couple of smaller, quieter moments with Spin just hanging out with her squaddies that are just as compelling. Honestly, if Sanderson had cut a lot of the nonsense, and instead focused on telling the story of a handful of quirky, desperate pilots in training, Skyward could be a good, perhaps great piece of space opera. As it is, however, I found myself alternating between rolling my eyes at one chapter and devouring the next, so … yeah. Kind of a pendulum, there.
A sequel, Starsight, is due to come out this fall. And so help me, I’m curious enough that I’ll probably read it. Eventually.