Nathan’s review of Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
Who knew that the author of one my favorite big, epic, multi-generational chunky fantasy series could write a stellar novella? Fonda Lee brings everything that made The Greenbone Saga great but packages it into a deft, self-contained story that is as breath-taking as it is heart-breaking.
At its most basic, pared down level, Untethered Sky is a coming-of-age tale. Ester, our main protagonist from a first-person POV, narrates her journey to become a rukher – a tamer of the large and mighty roc who are tasked with protecting the kingdom from the harrowing manticore and other dangers. But it almost seems a bit understated to call this book a coming-of-age story just because Lee brings immense depth and nuance to Ester’s journey…and is able to do it all in less time than one of Robert Jordan’s prologues.
Ester is a fascinating character working through her own past traumas, most notably the brutal killing of her mother and brother by one of the mighty manticores. She set her on her own path, not only to seek her own personal vengeance against the manticore who killed her family (or, at least, a proxy for that manticore), but also seeking her independence and place in the world. Ester has a complex relationship with her father permeated by sexism, mourning, and prejudice and Ester ultimately seeks respect and identity in her new role as the rukher.
Very early in the novella we also meet Ester’s rukha, Zahra. Fans of animal companions should perk up at what Lee does with Ester and Zahra’s relationship. Whenever there are “best of” lists that involve animal companions, I mostly see anthropomorphized animals; fantasy animals that can directly communicate with the human (or humanoid) characters. Zahra isn’t like that. She is a fully animal companion, and yet she still feels like a complex, fully realized character with her own personality quirks so that she just leaps off the page.
And Zahra is so much more than just an animal companion. She is a reflection of Ester as the two characters learn and grow from one another. Zahra is a wild animal, tamed to hunt but also always a danger to Ester and the people around her. She is an animal that is always one step from seeking greater freedom – for food, a mate, or just the thrill of the kill – but is physically and psychologically domesticated for the good of the realm. And, in her own more human way, Ester occupies a very similar position. Ester also wants to be free, from her traumatic past, her need for revenge, her problematic father, and her own feelings of inadequacies as a woman from a low social class. Throughout the novella we follow Ester as she seeks an escape from her own form of “domestication”, whether that be as a powerful rukher or getting wined and dined by one of the emperor’s suns. One of Ester’s greatest worries in the world is that Zahra is escape and never come back, and this fear comes from her own desires to flee the circumstances in which she was raised.
As readers, we are able to understand and empathize with Ester’s plight not only because Lee’s writing of Ester’s inner monologue is so profound, but also because Lee places Ester in an epic fantasy setting that simultaneously feels vast and intimate. Worldbuilding is difficult in novellas because of the low page count, but Lee is able to construct a world that feels so varied and complete. In this one tale we only get to see and experience a small snippet of it, but we feel the greater world spinning around Ester. Lee absolutely tales the scope in Untethered Sky. Ester’s great desires and role as a rokher make the book feel grand and sweeping, but this is also the story of just one woman coming to terms with her own identity and place in the world. There are big action sequences, but the novella shines brightest in the quieter moments. The moments of Ester’s personal contemplation, her relationship with her fellow rukha, and her little moments bonding with Zahra were what kept me turning the pages (even though the action sequences were wonderfully tense!).
After years of not reading novellas, I am really coming around to the format, and books like Untethered Sky demonstrate the power that novellas can have. It is a tightly plotted and told story with the feeling of a much longer epic fantasy. While I was completely satisfied with the ending, I would love to be able to revisit this world again and again. Highly recommended.
Concluding Thoughts: A sweeping epic fantasy in a novella package, Untethered Sky will draw you in, rip your heart out, and then give you faith in humanity in its story of one young woman and her desire for more. Lee’s worldbuilding is top notch, and she brings her characters to emotionally-gripping life, including the giant rukha, Zahra. Thrilling action sequences combine with quieter character moments to build to one of my favorite stories I have read this year.