Regency Romance Crashes Into Dragon-Filled Dystopia In 'The Sky Is Yours'
Dragons, thanks to Game of Thrones, are cool again. But for many of us, dragons never stopped being cool. Even during the long stretches where the mainstream has largely ignored these awesome, ancient lizards of genre fiction, authors from Lucius Shepard to Robin Hobb to Naomi Novik have kept dragon lore alive, radically reinventing the scaly beasts along the way. On the considerable merits of her new novel, The Sky Is Yours, Chandler Klang Smith should be added to that list — although it would be a mistake to think that dragons are the book's bread and butter. They're there, of course; specifically, two ominous dragons relentlessly circle The Sky Is Yours' setting, a futuristic and dystopian city known as Empire Island. Smith, however, has even vaster monsters on her radar.
Empire Island is "an island full of eyes," a place where the populace nervously scans the skies for the yellow and green dragons that occasionally rain fire and death from above. It vaguely resembles New York City in geography and size, only it's been ravaged and divided by catastrophe. The rich live in regal, decadent splendor behind high walls, while the poor scavenge the smoldering waste beyond — and criminals are penned in an enclave called Torchtown that just so happens to be the most vulnerable to the dragons. Technology, at first glance, seems advanced beyond our own in a pulpy sci-fi kind of way, but it turns out to be eerily similar to our present. People conduct LookyChats on a device called the LookyGlass, while the Toob pacifies the masses with reality-show froth such as Late Capitalism's Royalty.
18-year-old Duncan Humphrey Ripple V is a former star of Late Capitalism's Royalty, and just as vapid and libertine as that requires. On the eve of his arranged marriage to Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, Ripple meets a teenaged urchin named Abby — short for Abracadabra — with whom he becomes smitten. This Regency-romance setup clashes deliriously with the sci-fi and fantasy elements of the book, and it's clear that's exactly what Smith intends. Rather than a genre mash-up, this is a genre car crash: kinetic, explosive, and uproariously messy. That mad energy is infectious, especially as these three uneasy allies are forced to embark on a quest into the squalid, perilous underbelly of Empire Island, where drug designers, pizza delivery drivers, resigned firefighters, and members of dragon cults circulate in a teeming social osmosis across the many barriers of the city — all while keeping fearful eyes on the fire from the sky.
Smith's gifts of imagination are staggering. Her world-building is a tangled sprawl of past, present, and future, a wickedly satirical synthesis that underlines just how fractured our own realities can be during periods of fear, unrest, inequality, and instability. But she does far more than hold up a cracked mirror to our world. In language that punches and caresses, she dwells on ugliness and beauty in equal measure — from "sewer gondoliers" to "daydream spire-domes like the shells of snails who feed at the secret hot vents of the sea."
The descent-into-hell plotline is splashed out in exaggerated gestures and bright, bold strokes; its raw energy rattles. Smith's broken, at times detestable characters — including a rich and colorful supporting cast — manage to shine amid a constant barrage of wonders and grotesqueries, eking out depth and redemption as the city seems intent on swallowing them whole. Like Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky before it, The Sky Is Yours filters youth through a warped yet poignantly canny speculative-fiction lens. At the same time, it's funny as hell, full of madcap detail, firecracker dialogue, and a healthy dose of absurdism in the face of darkness.
Rather than a genre mash-up, this is a genre car crash: kinetic, explosive, and uproariously messy.
Thankfully, the book's whopping, ostensibly on-the-nose symbolism — that is, deadly dragons in the sky over the city — avoids the obvious route. Rather than lapsing into some late-for-the party, post-9/11 allegory, Smith imbues her creatures with far more mystery and ambiguity, all while deftly ensuring that their formidable shadows never blot out her characters. The true monsters of The Sky Is Yours are more eerily familiar: consumerism, gentrification, disparity, and the ways cities can both liberate and dehumanize. There are dragons, but there are no Daenerys Targaryens, at least not exactly; this is a tale told on a much less heroic scale, even when the novel's rapturous climax ties the dragons' future to the fate of a character with a staggering inheritance.
The Sky Is Yours is a book about birthrights and the lack thereof, about the uncounted costs of survival and sacrifice. Rather than overstuffed, it's stuffed just enough; its dimensions are mythic, archetypal, and resonant, just like dragons themselves.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the forthcoming book Strange Stars (Melville House). Twitter: @jason_m_heller.
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