Fonda Lee has turned in a bravura performance in the new novella, Untethered Sky. Set in a vividly imagined desert kingdom of Dartha, a young woman named Ester narrates the story of how she came to devote her life to raising and flying giant hunter birds called rocs. From an early age, when her brother and mother were killed by human-eating monsters known as manticores, she resolves to dedicate herself to tracking down these beasts that terrorize the countryside. Learning to be a ruhker, or a highly skilled flyer of rocs, became her passion, and we see her at the story’s opening beginning the demanding and dangerous process of training a fledgling roc.
Untethered Sky is very much a story about bonding and love as well as a great hunting adventure. Unlike Lee’s amazing Green Bone Saga, there is no magic to enhance human skills, just gritty commitment and step-by-step mastery of a dangerous craft.
Even when young, rocs are taller than most men and have enormous wingspans. Those wings are powerful weapons that can beat their prey to death, and the talons on their feet are sharp as well-honed blades. Only one in five trainees makes it through the process of raising a fledgling (many die or are crippled), and we experience the often terrifying process with Ester as she slowly teaches the roc, called Zahra, to respond to her commands. Her training comes to a climax when she heads out to search for her first manticore kill, driving a horse-drawn chariot with Zahra on a perch behind her. (The scene is beautifully captured in the cover artwork by Jaime Jones.)
Their prey, the manticore, is a fearsome creature, almost impossible to kill without the help of a giant roc that can shoot straight down from the sky with terrific momentum. The beast is as heavy as a bear, has an ape-like face and hairs on its pelt that are like sharpened quills. Its teeth are daggers, and its tail has a mace-like tip that is a deadly weapon.
Ester is joined on her first hunt by the more experienced ruhker, Darius, who is just as tightly committed to the near ascetic life of mastering rocs as is Ester. These two talk exclusively about their craft, and for a long time there is no hint of romance about their no-nonsense relationship. Nevertheless, the bond between them grows over the course of the story and becomes a dramatic highpoint as they ever so gradually open up to each other.
On this first hunt for Ester, Darius charges forward with his chariot and roc, Minu. They are also joined by another friend, the well-born Nasmin, with her older roc, Azar. After successfully drawing a manticore out of hiding, Ester gets the kill in an exciting chase. Then she travels to the royal court of the king, with Nasmin, who is very much at ease in such surroundings, unlike all the other ruhkers who have no interest in social graces or cultivating people in the capital.
Ester gets the formal blessing that all ruhkers receive after their first kill to mark their graduation into the ranks of manticore hunters. But it is Nasmin who shines at court and who develops a relationship with a royal prince. She becomes a traveling spokesperson for an enlargement of the ruhker force to combat an increasing menace from the man-killing beasts. There is a beautiful description of the change in the relationship between Ester and Nasmin as a result of their time at court. Ester appreciates her friend’s talent to speak well and move people’s hearts, but the relationship changes from this point:
“I sensed something forming between us, tendrils of guilt and envy weaving like fast-growing vines into the cracks of our friendship. Nasmin wanted to share her achievement, and she couldn’t do so without hurting me. We had both come to Antopolis as celebrated ruhkers, but only one of us was leaving a hero.”Untethered Sky, Kindle ARC, Location 881
The story proceeds to elaborate Ester’s progress at the beginning of her career. She is a rugged hunter, totally devoted to her roc, and she describes the bond between them in the most telling way as she bargains with Zahra in her heart:
“I’ve devoted myself to your care and training. I hunt with you and for you, I deliver all the bloodshed you crave, I worship you with my weak human frailty. In return, you must stay. You must make me worthwhile. You must be leashed to this cadge and kept in this pen, and you must never fly free as you were born to do, because I will never be free of you either, and we are partners in our captivity, and each perfectly monstrous in our own way.”Untethered Sky, Kindle ARC, Location 1007
Fonda Lee calls Untethered Sky a memoir, and that is a good description of this first person narrative. Ester is honest about herself and the human cost of becoming a ruhker, yet loses none of her sensitivity about the few relationships that stand out in her life. Her style is blunt and direct, yet capable of sudden insights about people and the natural world that burn into memory. This novella is a perfectly told story about achieving a mature grasp of life in a world stripped down to its essentials of survival, friendship, hard-won love and sacrifice in an unforgiving desert landscape. A great achievement.
My thanks to Tordotcom and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Untethered Sky as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.