Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Caeli-Amur: an ancient city perched on white cliffs overlooking the sea; a city ruled by three Houses, fighting internecine wars; a city which harbours ancient technology and hidden mysteries. But things are changing in Caeli-Amur. Ancient minotaurs arrive for the traditional Festival of the Sun. The slightly built New-Men bring their technology from their homeland. Wastelanders stream into the city hideously changed by the chemical streams to the north. Strikes break out in the factory district.
In a hideout beneath the city, a small group of seditionists debate ways to overthrow the Houses. How can they rouse the citizens of the city? Should they begin a campaign of terror? Is there a way to uncover the thaumaturgical knowledge that the Houses guard so jealously? As the Houses scramble to maintain their rule, it becomes clear that things will change forever in Caeli-Amur.
Thoughts: Caeli-Amur is a city balanced on the knife-edge of change. The Houses of Marin, Arbor, and Technis have a strangehold on the city, the laws, and the power to create harsh and unfair working conditions for the citizens, which they do with impunity. But like in our own history, you can only push people so far before they begin to push back. Worker’s strikes, seditionist groups, anarchists bent on taking down the rule of the Houses and creating a fairer world. That is the scene set for Unwrapped Sky to work with, a parallel of our own history set on a different stage, a fantasy world, and it makes for a compelling story that hits hard and doesn’t let up.
It’s not just the setting that makes the story so amazing, though that does play a large part. Caeli-Amur’s ruling Houses control mages, known as thaumaturgists, whose art grants them great power but also warps them over time, eventually killing them. The history of the world is largely hinted at rather than said outright, leading to some fascinating peeks at a larger world beyond the small part of it that we see during the novel itself. The sunken city of Caeli-Enas in particular was something that gripped me (and gripped a number of characters); the idea of a sunken library filled with the secrets of the ancients isn’t a new idea, but it is a fun one to play with. There’s enough that’s like our world to feel familiar, and enough that’s different to make the whole thing feel new and fresh, a good blend to keep people interested on both levels.
But it was the characters that really did it for me, more than the setting, more than the style of writing (though both were also very good). Kata, indebted to a House and trying to earn her freedom through occasionally unsavory means, from murdering to infiltrating a group of seditionists, and who eventually comes to understand that the seditionists are a positive force to be reckoned with. Max, trying to move the seditionists in a direction that will still cause change but will avoid what he sees as the worst harm, wanting also to gain the lost knowledge from the library beneath the sea. Boris, a tramworker raised in status to Director of House Technis, always convincing himself that he’s using his power for the right reasons when he’s using it for personal gain. The characters are so wonderfully real, flawed and solid and distinct, that it’s hard not to get invested in their stories, their goals, even when you think what they’re doing is reprehensible.
I mentioned writing style previously, and that does bear a bit of a closer examination. Davidson has a knack for powerful observation and poetic turns of phrase, as well as for letting the reader draw their own conclusions from events. I found this particularly evident with Boris, as he grows more and more used to the power that he wields, it’s never said outright that what he’s doing is wrong. He does terrible things, he feels bad about them, but at no point do we step back from third-person-limited to third-person-omniscient to make a judgment call. From my experience with both reading and writing, that’s a hard line to take, playing the part of the uncritical narrator. Boris was not a bad person, though he did some truly terrible things. He was a complicated man, believing that he was working to positive ends, reaching at things that were always beyond his grasp and failing to understand why he couldn’t obtain them. While Kata and Max were interesting characters, I could have read the whole book from Boris’s perspective, since Davidson’s wonderful writing style lends itself well to telling that kind of story, a great presentation of grey-and-grey morality.
I have to say, though, I was hoping for the minotaurs to play a bigger part in the tale. The story starts off with minotaurs, even. We see them in the first paragraph. A couple of them are around for a little while. Then they all but disappear except for background mentions, and one scene toward the end. For the presence of the minotaur on the cover, and the way I hear people talking about how wow, this book has minotaurs, and that’s just awesome, they played such a small part that it was disappointing after all the build-up of hype.
But I’m not going to condemn a book for its lack of more mythological creatures. At the end, what I can say is that Unwrapped Sky still met and surpassed my expectations, was a wonderful story to sink into, and satisfied a craving for a new fantasy that was unlike any other that I’ve experienced. If you’re looking for a novel that will stand the test of time, that tells a strong and complex story with a fresh perspective, or if you’re just looking for a good solid fantasy that doesn’t just stick to standard conventions and doesn’t suffer at all for breaking tradition, then this is the novel you should be reading.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)