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The Stars Askew (Caeli-Amur) Hardcover – July 12, 2016
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About the Author
RJURIK DAVIDSON has won Australia's Aurealis Award for his short fiction. He separates his time between Finland and Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Unwrapped Sky and The Stars Askew.
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The Stars Askew, though, delivers so much more than what I had been impatiently awaiting. The intricately-designed world in which Unwrapped Sky unfolds is broadened far beyond the borders of Caeli-Amur; characters both familiar and new continually reveal unexpected depths; and instead of the neat, concise answers that readers of Unwrapped Sky might have thought we wanted, we are ultimately left with that same sprawling, beautiful, chaotic uncertainty that kept us thinking and dreaming of Caeli-Amur as we waited for The Stars Askew to bring us home.
Sometimes they soar and exceed all of our wildest expectations.
And sometimes they fall so flat that you start to wonder why you even bothered picking them up in the first place.
So when I heard about The Stars Askew I was cautious.
I wondered if Davidson replicate what worked so well in Unwrapped Sky? Could he build upon all of the fascinating themes he touched on in the first book? Would he be able to recapture and further explore that wonderful and strange tone that he excelled at? Or would The Stars Askew fall by the wayside, like so many other sequels that have come before it?
Well, after finishing it I'm happy to say that The Star Askew not only lives up to its predecessor, it surpasses it.
The Stars Askew brings to the table what Davidson does so well. You have a riveting and vibrant world that pulses with imagination, a successful and increasingly violent revolution standing on tenuous legs, and a raft of enthralling and fascinating characters who each bring something different to the story.
What separates The Stars Askew from Unwrapped Sky however is that it is tighter and more controlled. At times in Unwrapped Sky it felt like Davidson had too much going on. There was philosophical discussion, a magic system to explain, political economy to unpack, and a steampunk and fantasy story to explore. The Stars Askew is cleaner and more streamlined, with a clear direction and enthralling plot that culminates in what is arguably one of the best conclusions to a book that I've read in many years.
Told mainly from the perspective of three points of view (Kata, Maximillian, and Armand), The Stars Askew begins a few weeks after the successful (and bloody) revolt of the people of Caeli-Amur. From this starting point Davidson takes you on a fascinating journey of what occurs in the aftermath of a revolution. What happens when services that you take for granted break down in the power vacuum? What do you do when the new rulers begin hoarding and resorting to violence and purges to maintain their tenuous grip on power? Both of these questions are explored deeply, and I was stunned by just how riveting I found it. Davidson obviously draws from a deep understanding of revolutionary theory and political economy, but he never resorts to bland extrapolations or dry political discourse. The story is vibrant, fast-paced, and often bloody and violent. Murder investigations take place, assassinations and counter revolutions are planned, and gods and other beings interfere and use us as play things. Amidst all of this the people and creatures of Caeli-Amur struggle to survive, and are constantly torn between sides and factions that change their spots and evolve with every day that passes (for example the growing violent extremism of a faction of the seditionists). The Stars Askew asks hard questions, and it is confronting reading at times (Camp X for example). But it is also thoughtful and delightfully weird, blending elements of fantasy, steampunk, noir and horror into a mash that challenged and entertained me at the same time. Davidson reminds me a lot of China Miéville in that regard. He also has that uncanny ability, like Miéville, to weave serious philosophical and political discussion into a book that has, to be frank, has freakin minotaurs in it!
The action is yet again impressively choreographed, and the world building rich and wonderfully played out. I delighted in placing where Davidson had drawn his ideas from (the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France for example, or the system of concentration and labour camps in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia), and I felt as though I was caught up amidst the chaos as I read. And as a magic systems geek Davidson's use of Thaumaturgy, with all of its risks, still blows my mind.
If I had one small criticism it would be that the three main characters never really cross paths, with each taking their own directions (despite all of their goals concerning the fate of Caeli-Amur) in the story. Although I understand why Davidson did this, I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction between them.
In combining revolutionary theory with bursts of thaumaturgical power and political intrigue Davidson has, once again, written a story that both delights and challenges your thinking. Powerful, gripping, and utterly addictive. The Stars Askew is the type of story I'd happily take with me to a deserted island.
5 out of 5 stars.
I didn't think it would be possible for the author to surpass Unwrapped Sky in terms of skillful storytelling and good characterisation, but he has managed to pull it off. The Stars Askew is the kind of a sequel that all sequels should aspire to be, because the author expands the fantasy world, reveals new wonders and terrors to his readers and delivers a fast-paced story with an excellent ending.
Rjurik Davidson has matured a lot as an author since his first Caeli-Amur stories, which were published in The Library of Forgotten Books (PS Publishing, 2010). Although he has always been an excellent author, he now seems to have reached the full potential of his writing skills and writes more confidently than before. His rich and evocative prose is a pleasure to read, because he has the gift of engaging narration. His lush desciptions about the various places are breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising, and he writes captivatingly about the characters.
I consider The Stars Askew to be a remarkable achievement in fantastical storytelling. In this novel, the author exceeds himself in worldbuilding and characterisation. Compared to Unwrapped Sky, this novel feels more robust and more rounded, because it has more of everything that made Unwrapped Sky a good novel and there's a perfect balance between the different elements.
This novel gives readers an opportunity to read about such wondrous sights as minotaurs, Gorgons, Augurers, technological wonders, ancient machines, dangerous magic, blood-orchids etc. It is filled with visually stunning imagery that is reminiscent of China Miéville and Anthony Huso and has a dash of old-school weird fiction coupled with modern dark fantasy.
I think it's good to mention that it's advisable to read Unwrapped Sky before reading this novel. It's possible that you may be able to enjoy this novel as a standalone novel, but I strongly recommend reading Unwrapped Sky first, because you'll miss out on a lot of details unless you're familiar with the background story and the characters. (It's also good to mention that there are a few bloody and violent scenes in this novel that may be disturbing to those who are easily shocked.)
Here's a bit of information about the story:
- The story is told from the point of view of three main characters: Kata, Armand and Max.
- In the beginning, Thom asks Kata to take a letter to Aceline, the seditionist leader, who resides at Marin's water palace. When Kata goes to see Aceline, she finds her murdered. She also finds the bodies of two thaumaturgists who seem to have killed each other by using a burning conjuration. She begins to investigate what has happened and hears about a mysterious old book with a sheen of thaumaturgy on it...
- Armand has fled Caeli-Amur and thinks that an assassin is following him. He has stolen the Prism of Alerion, which allows its controller to halt the dangerous effects of thaumaturgy on the body. He is on his way to Varenis to meet Karl Valentin who was once his grandfather's protégé and now works as a Controller at the Department of Benevolance. He seeks his help, but is betrayed...
- Maximilian shares his mind with the joker god Aya, because he allowed Aya access into his head in the Great Library of Caeli-Enas, the Sunken City. He travels deep into the heart of the mountain to a place that is inhabited by the Elo-Talern. Soon Aya takes full control of Max's body in order to do what he wants to do...
This is the beginning of a fast-paced, vivid and well-crafted story that combines impressive worldbuilding, intense atmosphere and rich characterisation in an entertaining way.
I like the way Rjurik Davidson draws inspiration from historical happenings, transforms them into a fantastical format and seasons them with New Weird elements. By taking elements from revolutionary France and Nazi Germany and spicing them with elements of betrayal, revenge, manipulation and hope, he creates a vibrant blend of harsh realism and fantastical strangeness. His deep understanding of mythology, philosophy, revolutionary themes and political issues adds complexity to the story.
The characterisation is satisfyingly complex. The richly-drawn and realistic protagonists have their own lives, feelings, ambitions and needs that define them as persons. The author's way of telling the story from their perspectives feels natural and vivid, because he writes about what they do and how they react to various happenings in their lives.
Kata is a former philosopher-assassin who used to work for the Houses. She has become a seditionist who feels comfortable with the moderate faction of the seditionists. She still struggles with certain aspects related to friendship and trust. Armand is a former House Officiate who wants to restore the dominance and power of the Houses and desires a good position for himself. He has fled from Caeli-Amur and has stolen the valuable Prism of Alerion, which is said to contain the dying spirit of the god. Maximilian shares his mind with Aya, the joker god, because he made a bargain with Aya in exchange for the knowledge of thaumaturgy. He doesn't like sharing his mind with Aya and struggles for control.
I want to mention separately that I enjoyed reading about Dexion, who was Kata's minotaur friend. The author wrote intriguingly about him and his characteristics.
In this novel, character interaction is excellent and realistic. The author fluently describes how the major and minor characters feel about each other and how their ambitions and needs collide with each other. What happens between Max and Aya is handled exceptionally well, because they share a body and mind. They have to tolerate each other despite their differences and contrasting opinions. They both fear that they may end up becoming permanently combined if they're not careful and able to separate themselves.
What happens between Armand and Karl Valentin is intriguing. Armand seeks help from Valentin, but is badly betrayed and ends up in the terrifying Camp X, which is a speculative fiction equivalent to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the Gulags in Stalinist Russia.
Camp X is the pride of the work camps of Varenis. It's a slave labour camp where prisoners mine deadly and dangerous bloodstone for the Empire's thaumaturgists. The author's vision of Camp X is simply stunning in its terrifying bleakness, because the prisoners suffer from mining bloodstone and won't live long. He describes well how the prisoners are treated at the camp and how they're being supervised. The conditions at the camp are inhuman and everyone who arrives there will soon submit to working hard as long as he lives.
The worldbuilding is excellent and satisfyingly vibrant. The author paints a breathtakingly beautiful sight of Caeli-Amur and the vast urban metropolis of Varenis, the centre of which is dominated by the Twelve Towers (there's one tower for each of the Sortileges, the thaumaturgic rulers who hover above the city). Varenis is different from Caeli-Amur in many ways, because it's a city that is surrounded by farmlands and has suburbs, villas, waterways, canals, tall buildings, train lines, walkways and the Undercity. I was fascinated by the strange beauty of Varenis and its different areas. It was also fascinating to read about Lixus, which was called the Ruined City.
Because I've always been interested in botany, I enjoyed reading about the semi-sentient blood-orchids that suck on blood and bone. These carnivorous flowers and their feeding habits are a sight to behold.
In this novel, the author continues to write excellently about the dangerous magic called thaumaturgy and its effects on its users. Although thaumaturgists are aware that touching the Other Side is extremely dangerous and it distorts them, they do it anyway, because they have no other way to control and use the power. Much has been forgotten about thaumaturgy over the years and people don't recall how to use it safely anymore.
Rjurik Davidson's way of writing about politics is interesting, because he fluently combines politics and philosophy. Because there have been times when I've felt that certain authors pay a little too much attention to politics and forget to balance it with other matters, it was nice to see that the author maintained a perfect balance between political intrigue, thaumaturgy, murder investigations and plot twists.
Because I was fascinated by the thought-provoking elements in Unwrapped Sky, I was delighted to find out that the author continued to use them in this novel. The aftermath and the consequences of the revolution are handled in an exceptionally skillful way, because the seditionists face severe problems and all their attempts to make things better seem to fail and only worsen the situation. Reading about how things escalate and become difficult for the seditionists is intriguing, because it feels realistic.
In this novel, the author makes his readers ask these three important questions: "What happens when the rulership changes?", "Are new rulers better than the old ones or just as bad as them?", and "Is it acceptable for new rulers to resort to using violence and purges to enforce their ruling?" I think it's great that the author isn't easy on the readers and doesn't underestimate their intelligence, but makes them think about what's going on, because reading this kind of a thought-provoking story is rewarding.
In my opinion, certain elements in this novel are clearly indebted to such masters of the weird as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. There's something about the Elo-Talern that reminded me a bit of old-fashioned weird fiction and dark fantasy. I found the author's depictions of them to be mesmerising, because he told what has happened to them since their engines have broken down and what kind of a fate awaits them.
The Stars Askew is exceptionally good and wonderfully original fantasy fiction for adult readers. If you're fed up with mediocre fantasy novels and want to read something different and original, The Stars Askew is perfect antidote to countless mediocre novels that endlessly recycle the same plots over and over again without any kind of originality and style, not to mention substance. It's a refreshing reading experience due to its originality, imaginative story and bizarre fantasy world.
Along with China Miéville's Bas-Lag series, Anthony Huso's The Last Page (Tor Books, 2010) and Black Bottle (Tor Books, 2012) and David Edison's The Waking Engine (Tor Books, 2014), The Stars Askew is one of the finest achievements in epic New Weird-ish fantasy fiction. Because it has plenty of depth and an uncanny feel of darkness to it, it will please many speculative fiction readers.
As you can probably tell by what I've written above, I was very impressed by The Stars Askew and found it amazing. I give it full five stars on the scale from one to five stars.
Rjurik Davidson's The Stars Askew sparkles with sublime beauty and captivating strangeness. It's a successful combination of various elements ranging from epic fantasy and horror to steampunk, weird fiction and New Weird. It takes readers on a rewarding journey into another world which is filled with beauty, terror and strange wonders. You can't afford to miss it, because it's one of the best and most memorable fantasy novels of the year.
Very highly recommended! (More, please!)
So it was with some cautiousness that I picked up the sequel and I am glad I did. This book feels a lot more character-driven, we feel a greater connection with the different points of view that felt a bit lacking in Unwrapped Sky. Peeling back some of the mystery of the gods and their toys helped keep my interest as well.
I am curious to see where this story goes from here.