Serena’s Review: “Untethered Sky”

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Book: “Untethered Sky” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Ester’s family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and baby brother, leaving her with nothing but her father’s painful silence and a single, overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family.

Ester’s path leads her to the King’s Royal Mews, where the giant rocs of legend are flown to hunt manticores by their brave and dedicated ruhkers. Paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, Ester finds purpose and acclaim by devoting herself to a calling that demands absolute sacrifice and a creature that will never return her love. The terrifying partnership between woman and roc leads Ester not only on the empire’s most dangerous manticore hunt, but on a journey of perseverance and acceptance.

Review: I really enjoyed Fonda Lee’s “Jade City” trilogy. It was a sprawling, complex, urban fantasy story with an entire host of complicated, troubled characters at its heart. It was truly impressive and left me in no doubt of Lee’s fantasy chops. That said, I was pleased to see that her next book was a stand-alone novella. As much as I’m an epic SFF fan, it’s lovely to be able to break up my reading experience with these shorter, bite-sized looks into new worlds and stories. It also is a unique writing skill, to pare down a story into a compressed number of pages without losing key aspects of the world/characters/etc. I wasn’t concerned that Lee wouldn’t be able to manage; no, I was just excited to see what she had to offer!

Ever since she lost her family to an attack by a manticore, a viscous, cat-like monster that prefers human prey above all else, Ester has pursued one goal: to become one of the rare handlers who work with the giant Rocs that are the only animals capable of hunting and killing manticores. Now, as a young woman, Ester earned her place after successfully training one of these gigantic birds to fly for her. But when a prince of the realm decides that now is the time for the empire to rid itself of the threat of manticores once and for all, Ester and her Roc, Zahra, find themselves on an adventure that may prove perilous to both woman and bird.

I really enjoyed this book! For such a short novel, it really did pack quite a punch, especially on the adventure front. First of all, I really liked the primary concept at the heart of the story: that of a young woman and her journey to train a dangerous, huge bird of prey. For one thing, I was under the misimpression that this was one of those stories where the huge birds are ridden by their handlers. But instead the relationship between rukher and Roc is essentially that of a falconer. Of course, in this situation the “falcon” is the size of an elephant and could kill the handler with one buffet of its wings. But I was incredibly pleased when I discovered this since there have been numerous books released recently about dragon riders or phoenix riders or what have you. So this take felt fresh and new.

I’m not overly familiar with traditional falcon training, so I was also really intrigued by a lot of the details about how Ester forms the relationship with her Roc. Not only is this a bird that could easily kill her, but by the very nature of the relationship, Ester must train a wild bird to willing return to her after each hunt. Unlike riders who maintain direct contact with their mounts at all time, the Roc could essentially choose to fly away at any moment. It made the entire relationship much more complex and interesting.

I also really liked the world-building, as the author had to create some reason to motivate humans to take on the perilous task of training these birds (its established early on that there is a high mortality rate in the effort to train even a single Roc). The manticores are not only terrifying in and of themselves, but it’s a clever conceit to create a threat to human life that can only be managed by domesticating its only natural predator, giant birds.

The human relationships definitely fall to the backburner in a story that is primarily focused on the relationship between Ester and Zhara. But I really liked what we saw with the other rukhers and the ways these relationships wove in and out of Ester and Zhara’s lives. The final third of the book builds to a climatic action scene that pulled in aspects of these human relationships in interesting ways while also highlighting how delicate the balance is between rukher and their Roc.

I will say that while I really enjoyed this read, I did finish it feeling as if the story ended rather suddenly. It took a few surprising turns towards the end, and then finished in a way that left me feeling a bit bereft. I think, on one hand, that was probably the point for a conclusion that was meant to be bittersweet. But I also then looked back on my read and didn’t necessarily feel as if I can away from the book with any real conclusions. Of course, it’s not necessary that every book has some great thesis or “point,” but I think there was just something a bit rushed in the pacing towards the end that left me floundering.

Overall, though, this was still an incredibly fun read for me and I highly recommend this book to all fans of Lee’s work and to fantasy fans in general. There is a lot of great stuff to be found here, and I can’t wait to see what this author has in store for us next!

Rating 8: Fonda Lee strikes again, this time with a poignant novella that captures the wild, bittersweet joy of working alongside powerful creatures and the important relationships that can form between humans and animals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Untethered Sky” can be found on this Goodreads lists: Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads

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