Map of Blue Book Balloon

20 March 2021

#Review - Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

Cover by Dominic Forbes

Skyward Inn
Aliya Whiteley
Solaris, 16 March 2021
Available as: HB, 311pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy provided by publisher
ISBN (HB): 9781781088821

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Skyward Inn via NetGalley, to consider for review.

Skyward Inn is proper mind-bending science fiction. I read a lot of SF which, while thrilling and fun, is basically... domesticated. People in space ships doing things. Apocalypses. Complex tactical books involving politics conspiracies and manoeuvring. Often, all of these at the same time. And they can be really great. But sometimes I miss a sense of deep weirdness, of unknowableness - a sense that Skyward Inn delivers in spades. The book won't be for everyone, but really did it for me.

In a near future, suffering (in a background way) from climate change, a gateway (the 'kissing gate') has opened in space, allowing travel to an alien world, Qita - an opportunity eagerly taken up by 'the coalition', a suppurate or alliance of states (it's never clear which - though in this future English has become a little regarded, minority language) with dream of conquest. Part of England, the 'Western Protectorate'; has seceded, either in principled opposition to this or possibly just to preserve a self-sufficient, bucolic way of life. Again, it's never clear.

Within the Protectorate, Jem and Isley run the Skyward Inn, serving Qitan 'brew' to the locals. Both are veterans of the war: Jem, a local woman who ran away to space and Isley, a Quitan. Jem is estranged from her son Fosse, who lives nearby with Jem's brother, Dom, a leader in the community.

It's a very simple setup, on the surface, but Whitely uses it to explore so much - ideas about family, about the structure of society, what it means to be human and our responsibilities to each other and to the world. I need to be careful what I say here because the book is one of those which achieves its effect slowly and incrementally. Things seem a bit odd from the start, when Fosse, slipping away to an abandoned farm to do what teenage boys do in private, encounters strangers who Arte, well, strange, but do him the great service of paying him attention, something he's not used to.

At the same time, another stranger, a visitor from Qita, appears at the Inn, needing help. There are suggestions here of prejudice and even violence: their existence must be kept secret. The arrival does, though, trigger Jem's memories of her time in Qita. They're strange, almost hallucinogenic, episodes involving her travels ostensibly involving nothing more than posting bland propaganda leaflets wherever she goes. We're primed for a significant encounter, or a misstep, perhaps the breaking of some cultural taboo, but what Jem was doing eventually turns out to be both more and less significant the that. Less, because there are no incidents, no misunderstandings, no politics or warfare. More, because, as becomes clear to another, later traveller to Qita, what Jem did was, actually, all-important.

In this book, intentions and unintended consequences bounce off one another. As the citizens of the Protectorate struggle to maintain their principled, isolated lifestyle, they're threatened from various directions: shortages of food, materials and medicines, an ominously spreading, mysterious disease which causes some areas to be quarantined, and those strangers that Fosse runs into. At the personal level things are tense between Fosse, Dom and Jem. A lot of family history is being buried as people hold to positions and talk past one another. And that stranger, Won, at the Inn also creates tensions and misunderstandings.

Just how strange all this gets, I can't say. I will say that's it's a growing, creeping weirdness. The alienness of the Qitans in this book is both less than we have been primed to accept by the run of SF - they don't excite horror by their appearance - and more, as we are eventually shown. In exploring both aspects Whiteley creates a truly compelling story, one where I simply didn't know what was going to happen (or, indeed, exactly what had happened!)

There is some gorgeous writing here, whether capturing the turbulence of adolescence ('He never thought he'd miss going to school, but being kept at home for a few days made Fosse aware that school offered a quiet, resilient shape to his day...'), the frustration of a woman torn between standing by her past decisions or attempting to remake her future or the gentleness and thoroughness of Dom checking a dog for injuries (yes, this book contains dogs!) 

In short, reading Skyward Inn was a truly unsettling experience, but an immersive, wonder-filled one. It is a remarkable book.

For more information about this book, see the publisher's website here.

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