REVIEW: Untethered Sky (x2) by Fonda Lee
Dear Fonda Lee,
Your novella, Untethered Sky, begins when its main character, Ester, a would be-rukher (handler of rocs), is given one of the huge and powerful birds with incredible hunting capabilities. Ester is successful in training Zahra and once the bird completes her first kill of a manticore, she is officially made a rukher. The monstrous manticores prey on humans and nothing but a roc can kill a manticore. Therefore the bond between a roc and a human is crucial.
Each roc is bonded with one human, but it’s not a telepathic or empathic bond. The rocs are trained to respond to their voices and view them as a source of food, a kind of reward system. So Zahra is indifferent to Ester except as a provider of food. But that doesn’t keep Ester from loving Zahra. Ester wants only to stay with Zahra and work with her forever.
Rukhers generally love rocs to bits, not just their own but also the rocs of other rukhers. This was never properly explained in the story and I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand it added to the mystique and power of the majestic birds, but on the other hand, it was hard for me to grasp this the equation. This is where a mention of a bit of magic or a supernatural ability would have added more to the story. But though this is a fantasy novel, there’s absolutely no magic in the story, it’s only a fantasy because it’s set in a different world and centers around mythical creatures realized in fiction.
Ester lost her younger brother and her mom to a manticore attack when she was a kid. She was supposed to watch her brother at the time and her brother was the longed-for boy her parents finally had after years of infertility, an adored late-in-life child. Ester hides in a well during the attack and is nearly killed herself. Needless to say Ester has hated manticores ever since and wanted nothing more than to be a rukher from that day forward. She is thirsty for manticore deaths.
Ester befriends two other rukhers with more experience. Nasmin, outgoing and vivacious, is kind to her even when she’s just a candidate. Darius is very quiet and introverted, taciturn, but an expert handler of his roc.
Darius is drawn to Zahra first, but as he watches Ester train her they get to know each other. Eventually they form a working partnership and since rukhers work in pairs. It’s hard to tell at first what Dairus feels besides admiration of Zahra, Ester’s roc.
Things change when a young prince visits the mews and decides to publicize the rocs their rukhers. Ester has just completed her first kill and goes to the capital to be celebrated; Nasmin accompanies her since she’s from there and it’s an opportunity to visit. From there on things start to go wrong, first in Ester’s friendship with Nasmin and later in the politics of their kingdom vis-a-vis manticores and rocs.
Going into this 160-page novella, I expected that it would be a deconstruction of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which I loved as a child. I think there is a little bit of an homage in some of the training scenes (though they are shorter in Dragonflight). Unlike the Pern dragons, who are deeply devoted to their riders, the rocs are indifferent and sometimes even callous to their trainers, so the book may be in conversation with McCaffrey’s series about that, or maybe the author wanted to explore the opposite dynamic.
However, in most ways there’s very little similarity. The romance isn’t as prominent here and the world politics as well as the worldbuilding are completely different.
This book is also nothing like the Jade Saga books. Nothing. If I hadn’t seen Fonda Lee’s name on the cover, I would not have guessed it was her book. The Jade Saga books are action-filled adrenaline-fueled rides with a lot of focus on human relationships and high stakes. The main character becomes quite dark eventually but somehow retains a thread of humanity.
In this novella the stakes are much lower for most of the story. Ester’s humanity is never in question, nor that of the other characters, but they are all well-drawn. The plot is a lot more stripped down and the story is quieter.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t things to appreciate here. In a way I liked how spare the story was. The plot is a simple one and the writing, simple and stark, suits it and suits the world of the rukhers, where there is little room for luxury or fripperies.
The book is a little slow in parts though, and because Darius is so much the silent type and we only have Ester’s POV, the relationship Ester has with him feels subtle and ambiguous for a long time. In general, the first 70% percent or so of the book has a measured pace, and things only ramp up late in the story.
The world was easy to grasp, not overcomplicated, and the sensory descriptions made it feel real, though we only see a small corner of it.
I quite liked the writing. For example here is a description of Ester’s early, idyllic childhood.
My father’s desire for a son was so strong that he not only allowed but encouraged me in the things I most loved to do: wandering for hours, getting dirty exploring, riding my mule, and looking after all sorts of animals, from baby goats to injured birds. He took me along as he made the rounds of our property, speaking to the senior field hands about irrigation, and crop yield, and fences against the wolves. I loved our land: the pale green grazing fields in the valley by the creek, the tidy groves of sunbaked black olive trees in red dirt, the mist that sometimes rolled down from the blue shadow of the mountains, and the gigantic sky, upon which only a few stretched clouds loitered.
(There is a lot of natural landscape in this novella.)
For those who want to know if there is a romantic relationship that resolves happily:
In many ways this feels like a more mature book than Lee’s Jade Saga novels. It’s not one roller-coaster turn after another. There’s only one POV character and one person’s story here. But there’s something powerful in that simplicity, and the ending wasn’t what I expected, so points for that. B.