“Ester’s family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and baby brother, leaving her with nothing but her father’s painful silence and a single, overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family.”
Untethered Sky is Fonda Lee’s delicate coming-of-age novella inspired by Persian and Arabian folklore, featuring two beasts from Middle Eastern mythology: manticores and rocs. The manticore, which derives its name from the Persian word for “man-eater,” is a fearsome beast with a human-like head, the body of a lion, and a scorpion-like tail. It delights in feeding on humans, with the screams of its victims only fueling its thirst for carnage. In Untethered Sky, the manticore has only one natural predator: the giant bird known as the roc. The roc, which appears in both Arabian and Persian mythology, is essentially a supersized falcon that can be trained to hunt a variety of beasts, including the manticore.
Untethered SkyUntethered Sky is told from the first-person perspective of Ester, a girl who lost both her mother and brother to a rampaging manticore. With the manticore’s sinister, heterochromic eyes emblazoned in her memory, Ester makes it her life’s mission to hunt and kill manticores by training as a ruhker, i.e., a professional roc trainer. The job of a ruhker is highly dangerous, since any miscommunication with the roc could lead it to attack its handler. Only about one in five apprentices are able to complete their training and become a successful ruhker.
The first part of Untethered Sky focuses on Ester’s apprenticeship. The most important aspect of her training is to build a trusting relationship with her adolescent roc, Zahra. I was especially touched by the respect and thoughtful care exhibited by Ester in all her interactions with Zahra.
As in her Green Bone Saga, Fonda Lee excels at nuanced characterization of complex interpersonal relationships. In Untethered Sky, these relationships include those between ruhkers and rocs and amongst the ruhkers themselves. All these relationships are built on mutual respect and collegiality but with an unspoken barrier preventing deeper connections. The cautiously affectionate interactions between Ester and her fellow ruhker Darius are especially poignant.
Another major theme in Untethered Sky is the relationship between humankind and the natural world. The ruhkers cultivate a respectful, personal relationship with their rocs, never considering themselves to have any ownership over the giant birds. This attitude contrasts with that of the local government officials who seek to leverage the rocs in a more organized, militaristic fashion to exterminate the manticores. Whereas the ruhkers give all the credit for manticore-hunting to their beloved rocs, the officials are quick to attribute their success to human skill and ingenuity.
With Untethered Sky, Fonda Lee shows her maturity and versatility as an author. Her writing is precise and poetic, with every word skillfully chosen. Combined with its gentle didacticism, Untethered Sky has the feeling of a classic folktale. Whereas the Green Bone Saga showcased Fonda Lee’s ability to write pulse-pounding action in the world of organized crime, in Untethered Sky she demonstrates quiet restraint. Her more minimalistic approach in this novella works every bit as effectively as the grander scale she employed in Jade City and its sequels.
Untethered Sky is a beautifully crafted gem of a novella, which reinforces Fonda Lee’s standing as one of the most talented authors in fantasy today. The Middle Eastern-inspired setting is an ideal backdrop for Lee’s tale, which gently interweaves fantastical elements in this graceful story about the nature of humanity, our relationships with each other, and humankind’s place in the natural world. Fonda Lee’s understated approach is the perfect vehicle for this moving novella about rising from tragedy to find one’s true calling.