Nathan’s Review of The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao
Publication Date: 13 June 2023
Series: Book #1 in the Rages Trilogy
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 512 pages
This Hindu philosophy-inspired debut science fantasy follows a husband and wife racing to save their living city—and their troubled marriage—high above a jungle world besieged by cataclysmic storms.
High above a jungle-planet float the last refuges of humanity—plant-made civilizations held together by tradition, technology, and arcane science. In these living cities, architects are revered above anyone else. If not for their ability to psychically manipulate the architecture, the cities would plunge into the devastating earthrage storms below.
Charismatic, powerful, mystical, Iravan is one such architect. In his city, his word is nearly law. His abilities are his identity, but to Ahilya, his wife, they are a way for survival to be reliant on the privileged few. Like most others, she cannot manipulate the plants. And she desperately seeks change.
Their marriage is already thorny—then Iravan is accused of pushing his abilities to forbidden limits. He needs Ahilya to help clear his name; she needs him to tip the balance of rule in their society. As their paths become increasingly intertwined, deadly truths emerge, challenging everything each of them believes. And as the earthrages become longer, and their floating city begins to plummet, Iravan and Ahilya’s discoveries might destroy their marriage, their culture, and their entire civilization.
Review of The Surviving Sky
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
I’ll start this review by talking about the most immediately cool thing about The Surviving Sky – the cities that literally float in the skies. It is a very cool worldbuilding tactic that Rao really makes shine in all kinds of cool ways. Combine that with gargantuan elephants and birds of prey, mind magic, and secrets on top of secrets, and you’ve got a book bursting at the seams with creative ideas.
The Surviving Sky is a hard book to pin down genre-wise because it isn’t concerned about fitting into some kind of genre box. It is a dystopian book, where the Earth is ravaged by natural disasters that kill everything in its wake. It is a fantasy book where magic users can literally keep cities afloat above the Earth and its terrors. It is a science fiction book, where researchers are interested in the limits of the magic, and better understanding how the magic works, what natural forces power it, and how they can better control it. It is a romance book, where the central duo is in one of the most believably toxic relationships I’ve seen in fiction.
The two main POV characters in The Surviving Sky are a married couple in their mid-30s, Ahilya and Iravan. “Married” is a bit of a misnomer here because they’ve been estranged for a long time due to their disagreements about how best to save humankind. Iravan is one of the book’s magic users and believes that magic is the only key to saving the people, while Ahilya is an archaeologist, interested in the human and natural past (as an archaeologist myself I’ll forgive Rao for misusing the term a bit here) and what that can tell their community (the flying city) about how to save themselves and the planet. The relationship between Ahilya and Iravan is really the emotional core to novel, and what kept me coming back for more. There is no denying that this is a toxic marriage, one that probably should never have started and was doomed from the start. Ahilya and Iravan are both headstrong and determined people, and in a way that causes them to clash rather than support each other. This relationship dynamic isn’t unique in fiction, but what Rao did really well here was make it clear what parts of their relationship do work. The “lovers to enemies to lovers to enemies to lovers….” relationship at play here works because we see just enough respect, just enough affection to see why these two toxic people keep running back to each other.
I really enjoyed Rao’s writing style. In some ways it is pretty utilitarian and no-nonsense. I read this book pretty quickly because your eyes nicely glide through Rao’s sentences; for most of the book the prose is not glaringly purple nor bad – it does what it needs to do to get to the things Rao actually cares about. There are also times when the prose is really beautiful as well. When Rao is explaining her characters using their magic, when she dives into their consciousness, the world comes alive. I don’t know how to describe it other than the words were colorful. I don’t mean it in terms of “oh the words were pretty” but rather that Rao literally made me see and think in color. Black and white book pages became an array of light in ways that I can’t quite describe. It was a fascinating experience, and one that I don’t think I’ve ever had before.
More than anything else, The Surviving Sky is a book of ideas. Rao injects her world with Hindu philosophy and worldviews that make The Surviving Sky feel unlike most anything I’ve read before. Once you get past some of the cool window dressings of the book (IT IS A FLOATING CITY), you get to dive into Rao’s examination of some really deep and meaningful topics. I’ll just highlight two of my favorite themes here; I won’t get into too much detail because they have spoiler-heavy plot ramifications.
The first is Rao’s understanding of consciousness. Rao asks some BIG questions about the meaning of consciousness – how do we define consciousness? Who has access to consciousness? Is consciousness a feature of the individual or the collective? Not only do these questions feature heavily into the construction of Rao’s magic system (which remains beautifully and simultaneously understandable and incomprehensible), but they are questions that the characters in the book have to grapple with themselves as they understand the world around them.
The second major theme that Rao explores that really excited me is the idea of “nature” itself. What is the line between nature and culture? Where does the “animal” end and the “person” begin? How have we as humans placed ourselves on this magnificent anthropocentric pedestal? And, most importantly, how have our big egos as being the “most important” living things contributed to the environmental destruction of our planet? Rao doesn’t shy away from these big themes and complex ideas as she pushes her characters into ethical corners.
There was a large part of me that wished all of Rao’s amazing ideas were conveyed to the reader a bit more smoothly. The Surviving Sky, especially in the first act, is heavy on the info-dumping. Characters bark worldbuilding facts at each other, even when they would be familiar with those concepts. At times the actual execution of the book reads like an elevated CW drama, or the Disney series Once Upon a Time. The characters spend more time explaining things to each other, and why certain things can or cannot happen, rather than actually doing things. I found myself thinking “Ok, I get it” more than once while working my way through the novel.
This had the unintended consequence of making the characters come across a bit…angrier than I think Rao intended. The characters in this book are emotionally charged, which is not surprising considering the world-ending circumstances they find themselves in. However, Rao over-relied on them being angry in order to find a reason for them to explain basic world concepts to each other. Not only did I think this detracted from the character work that Rao did so well in other aspects of the novel, but it made the characters slightly less likable and relatable. Again, this got better as the novel progressed but it took getting over that first hump of the novel.
It was almost as if Rao didn’t trust her audience to follow her worldbuilding. I think this is something important for us to unpack. As I stated earlier the Hindu-inspired philosophy and cosmology of the book really engaged me throughout; it is a radically different way to build a fantasy world in terms of how the character view the very fabric of reality. The edition I read of The Surviving Sky (published by Titan Books) is predominantly intended for an Anglo-American audience – an audience used to a very narrow Western, Judeo-Christian conception of the world. Rao has a bigger authorial battle to fight here than most SFF authors – she not only has to bring her audience up to speed in this dystopian-fantasy world, but she also needed to introduce an entirely new way of seeing and being in the world. This is no easy feat.
So, while the info-dumping was a bit awkwardly done, and it did lead to some minor hiccups in the narrative, I completely understand why Rao (and her agent, editors, and rest of the team) decided this is what needed to happen in this particular book. I really hope now that this first book is passed that the rest of the trilogy can unburden itself a bit from the worldbuilding heft that it needed to do here.
And speaking of the rest of the trilogy, I was a little surprised when I found out that this book was the first in a series (I really should do more research on the books I read before I start them…). The story in The Surviving Sky felt so contained, and the character arcs pretty much reach a conclusion (or, at least they could have easily been wrapped up in this single volume). I’m interested to see where Rao takes the story next because so much of the worldbuilding, mysteries, and more seemed to be exhausted here. This is not a criticism of the book (if anything it’s nice to read a first book that is satisfying on its own), but is rather an intriguing thought about where Rao is about to take us next!
Concluding Thoughts: A Hindu-philosophy inspired science fantasy, The Surviving Sky is big on worldbuilding and big on exploring complicated philosophical ideas. Rao doesn’t shy away from asking important questions in her book and pushing her characters to grapple with the consequences of the actions. This often means that Rao has to rely on info-dumping to describe her world and these ideas, but the result is well worth it, especially after you get through the first act of the book. Toss in a fascinating dynamic between the two main characters and this book is one to keep your eye on. I cannot wait to see what comes next in the trilogy.