Book Review: The Last Uncharted Sky, by Curtis Craddock
I read Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors awhile back, and rather enjoyed it. I also read the second book in the series, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery a few months ago during that several month stretch where I wasn’t reviewing or keeping track of what I read.
Normally, I like to space books in a series out, but A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery was so good that I went ahead and scooped up the third book in the series, The Last Uncharted Sky, just a few weeks ago, and here we are!
I’m a sucker for swashbuckling. Because of this, I’ll read or watch just about anything with rapiers and fancy hats. The world of Craddock’s Risen Kingdoms novels is modeled loosely on 17th century Europe, only if the various countries were situated on an enormous flying continent, hanging impossibly in a cloudy void. Each of the Risen Kingdoms has a particular kind of sorcery that runs in the bloodline of their nobility. The Not-Spanish have silver eyes and can enter into mirrors, the Not-French have blood-red vampiric shadows, the Not-Germans are shapeshifters who can take animal forms, and so on. It’s a fun sort of system, kind of reminiscent of a Brandon Sanderson novel, just without the charts and appendixes at the back. Though one thing I noticed as the series went on was that Craddock focused on the weirder sorcery of the Not-Spanish and Not-French in the first book, but then later ones introduce more ‘traditional’ magic like shapeshifting, or illusions or what have you. Then again, the second book also introduces the Not-Italians’ ability to cover themselves in bulletproof feathers and pass family memories down the line like a Trill symbiont from Deep Space 9 (which is the Best Trek, for the record, but that’s another blog post entirely).
Of course, a setting is only as interesting as the characters who inhabit it. Thankfully, Craddock delivers on this as well. The series follows the adventures of a brilliant noblewoman and secret academic named Isabelle, and her bodyguard/father figure, the musketeer Jean-Claude. A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery also introduced Major Bitterlich, dashing catman shapeshifter (and Isabelle’s love interest). And those are just the viewpoint characters; the series is full of compelling characters so that nearly everyone will have a favorite.
After foiling a coup attempt in the second novel, The Last Uncharted Sky takes up with Isabelle & Co. as they prepare to set out into the great unknown, taking an airship in search of an ancient, lost treasure that was mentioned in the last book. Swashbuckling adventure ensues, complete with battles at sea (er, battles at sky?), swordfights, daring escapes, sky-pirate enclaves, and so on.
However, amid all the adventure, The Last Uncharted Sky plays around with some other themes as well. In particular, disability is a recurring theme. Isabelle herself only has one (or, well, one flesh and blood arm), and at the beginning of the novel she’s dealing with a magical malady that’s basically a schizophrenia metaphor, complete with having to take her meds for balance. Likewise, Jean-Claude isn’t nearly as young as he used to be, and has to deal with getting older and older. Even Major Bitterlich has old trauma he needs to work through– though his particular condition comes off as a bit of a retcon, as it never came up in the prior book. This said, I’m not quite sure if the disability metaphor is entirely accurate, as by the end of the book (spoilers, I guess?) most of the characters get their conditions treated. Well, Jean-Claude’s still old, I guess, but still.
Of the three Risen Kingdoms books, The Last Uncharted Sky is kind of the weakest. Where the first two involve all kinds of intrigue, The Last Uncharted Sky’s “go get the MacGuffin” plot is pretty straightforward in comparison. Likewise, there are a few melodramatic plot twists that come off as a little bit too coincidental, and the book’s Big Bad of a villain has a plot that really just boils down to “Nyah, I will kill everyone!” Between that, and the fact he’s a goat-headed shapeshifter, it kind of reminded me of something out of Warhammer Fantasy. Which, considering the Church of the Builder, the primary religion of the Risen Kingdoms, has something of an Adeptus Mechanicus flavor to it … well, it makes me raise an eyebrow. Though honestly, Craddock still puts enough of an original spin on things that it doesn’t come off as contrived. I kinda wonder what 40k army he plays, however.
Honestly, though, these are just small quibbles. The Last Uncharted Sky is an engrossing, swashbuckling fantasy adventure, one I’d recommend to anybody with an interest in the genre. Particularly, if you enjoy Brandon Sanderson’s flavor of action-packed fantasy with weird-but-categorized magic, the Risen Kingdoms are definitely something to read, as they deliver the same kind of action, but with better plotting and characterization. Of course, you’d want to read the first two books before The Last Uncharted Sky, but there are honestly a lot worse ways you could spend your time.