THE SURVIVING SKY by Kritika H. Rao (BOOK REVIEW)
“The will of the city grew inside her, all the citizens, attuning their consciousness, to keep everyone safe, and then-Stillness.
The city hovered briefly.
A moment of weightlessness.
The Surviving Sky is the debut novel by Kritika H. Rao, due to be released in 2023 from Titan Books. This is a story which cleverly blends a whole host of genres from fantasy to sci-fi, dystopian to futuristic and even eco-fiction. Rao’s debut bursts with wondrous inventive worldbuilding, reflects on privilege and class divisions and centres on a marriage ruptured by secrets.
Set on a jungle planet uninhabitable due to destructive storms called earthrages, the last of humanity survives by living on plant-based floating cities run by architects. These architects are honoured above all others for their ability to physically shape the architecture of the city, thus stopping it from colliding into the jungle, and also for their ability to sense earthrages. Nakshar is one such city and upon it lives Iravan and Ahilya, our thorny married couple. Iravan is a powerful senior architect, his abilities are so ingrained into his being that manipulating the surrounding plant architecture comes as natural to him as breathing. Whilst most respect his status, his wife Ahilya sees architects as oppressors who are privileged and use their power to deliberately make citizens reliant upon them. Ahilya cannot manipulate plants, they do not bend and shape to her desire as they do for Iravan, and she feels the absence of this keenly. Ahilya nonetheless has talents of her own, she’s an archaeologist, a scholar, a strong-headed woman on a mission to find a way for humanity to once again survive in the jungle, free from the reliance upon architects. This puts Iravan and Ahilya directly at odds with one another, but with the earthrages lasting longer, and Iravan being accused of pushing his abilities to forbidden territory, and Nakshar on the threat of destruction, both must work together to save the last of civilisation.
When first beginning The Surviving Sky I immediately became fascinated by the innovative magic system which centres around consciousness and desire. Architects use a term known as trajection, this is where they have the ability to enter Two Visions, one of the world around them and one of a plant’s consciousness called the Moment. Within this Moment architects can manipulate plants to respond to their desires, they can influence nature’s consciousness forcing it to change form, thus shaping plants into building structures and such. The concept of this form of power completely engrossed me and although I tend not to compare books to others within my reviews, to give you an idea of the type of magic system Rao creates, I found similarities to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in the way that they both use nature and spirituality. As the novel progressed I desperately wanted to explore more and Rao obliged by crafting further intricate layers and complexities, particularly by adding limitations, for if an architect pushes their ability too far they can become Ecstatic which leads to them becoming destructive. I won’t go into any more detail as I don’t wish to disclose too much but I loved the way that even the characters did not fully understand the extent or true histories of their own powers, therefore by the end the magic system took some wonderfully surprising twists.
Although this novel does not incorporate a religion as such, a lot of the themes are clearly inspired by Hinduism. A central aspect of the Hindu religion is that of rebirth and spirituality. Each of the characters have lived a diverse range of past lives, of which most don’t remember, but as we delve into Iravan’s character more closely we begin to see that each life a person has lived can help unlock buried secrets and help to understand the world they live in today. History records can always fall short on their accuracy from being altered or manipulated by others yet a person’s first hand experience, even if only remembered in fragmented pieces, does not. I thought this was really cleverly done. However, my favourite part of the worldbuilding was the yakshas which were gigantic animals such as elephants, tigers and gorillas who still inhabited the jungle. In Hindu philosophy yakshas are depicted as nature spirits, and I loved the way they were portrayed in this novel. These creatures were majestic and mystical, once again compelling me to discover more. Rao’s worldbuilding is consistently richly detailed, her concepts are as fascinating as they are wondrous and enchanting.
The worldbuilding is most certainly central to the narrative but so too are the cast of diverse characters. Rao gives us a queernorm world where every character is also POC. Prejudice does not come because of the colour of a person’s skin, but rather from their social privilege. Ahilya is a character who is ashamed and angered by her inability to perform trajection. Her entire life she has felt inadequate, lesser, powerless and that is exactly how ordinary citizens are treated in Nakshar. Her skills as an archaeologist are dismissed, she and her colleague Dhruv, a sungineer (an inventor) have to continually prove that their findings have worth, that they deserve a place on the Council because they truly can help. Yet they are both restricted in the data they can access, refused a seat on the council, restricted in the places on Nakshar they are allowed to enter and only rarely allowed to step foot in the jungle planet during a lull in the earthrages to carry out their experiments, they must rely solely upon the authority of an architect at all times. Ahilya’s anger at this is more than apparent! What she doesn’t realise though is that in a way the architects have been indoctrinated to believe they are a higher being, they are trained into their trajection abilities from childhood and brought up to believe that their way is the correct way. Iravan may hold more privileges, but can he truly be blamed for that? But on the other hand can Ahilya be blamed for her animosity when her own husband, Iravan, does not see her role as an archaeologist as vital as the jobs the architects do?
Iravan and Ahilya always fail to understand each other, as I have stated they are our thorny couple. Did I want to knock some sense into both of them? Absolutely, because underneath all the built-up resentment, I could see how together they compliment each other immensely. They are both similar in many ways, both headstrong, both care about sustaining life whether that be in the jungle or on the floating cities, but they are both set in their ways, always on the defensive. It is no surprise given the insistence on architects to be married and have material bonds such as children, for good reasons as you’ll discover, but that kind of pressure takes its toll eventually. Many Indian cultures often apply this same pressure and it more often than not leads to conflict. Rao’s reflection on this was significant, as was the way she illustrates an unequal partnership. Iravan and Ahilya in essence are a fantastic depiction of what happens when the power and privilege within a relationship is unbalanced, when one has all the opportunities and the other has to struggle for theirs.
The Surviving Sky is a fast-paced, fascinating novel wrapped in philosophy and spirituality. Rao’s debut will dazzle many.
Early ARC provided by Kritika, thank you so much for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
You can preorder The Surviving Sky HERE: