You’ve kind of heard this story before, or elements of it. Young trainee in a new power, from a sheltered backwater land, gets caught up in a struggle against an implacable tyrannical foe sweeping all comers against it. Young trainee is talented, perhaps more than they know, but the opposition is led by a charismatic and implacably evil head who would stop at nothing to get what they want, including using a doomsday weapon to get the Macguffin first. Magic, battles, intrigue, adventure and full-color glorious epic as forces collide and the fate of a world hangs in the balance. Off the shelf components in some cases, maybe, but infused with a mixture of fun and adventure, such a combination can be darned entertaining.
Skyfarer is the debut novel by Joseph Brassey.
The worldbuilding drew me in hard and early in the novel. We need a word for this kind of setting, since here at Skiffy and Fanty one of my fellow bloggers, Kate Sherrod, recently reviewed An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. That novel’s universe features a set of floating continents in a Jovian planet’s atmosphere. Airships fly from continent to continent, with different cultures and polities on them. The roleplaying game Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies had a world like this, with a variety of layers of skies that islands from the small to continent sized drift in, and can be reached with ships made of a wood that defies gravity. And then there is the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game where one of the Elemental Planes, the Elemental Plane of Air, is mostly an empty sky dotted with floating islands of various sizes. The Larry Niven novels The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring, set in a giant oxygen bearing atmosphere in free fall, is an early example of this.
Skyfarer takes a similar approach to these other Planes of Air locations with the world that the author creates. Right in the first chapter, with our heroine aboard the vessel she has signed up for, the author makes it clear that the skyship Elysium flies, with the aid of portalmages like herself, from island to island in the sky, the islands quite distant from each other. That her first outing in opening a portal goes so badly wrong, right off, setting off the plot, only accentuates the wonder and interest in the world that the author unspools from the get-go, letting the characters hit the ground scrambling and trying to figure out what happened and why. It masterfully avoids “As you know, Bob” and also shows off the characters at the same time. The iceberg of the world that the author builds is clear, with intimations and mentions of polities, societies, and of course the mysterious Axiom Diamond, the Macguffin of the novel.
Besides the intriguing worldbuilding, character is the engine of the novel, and that is embodied in our heroine, Aimee. Young, idealistic, ambitious and talented, we see her go from freshly-out-of-school to a tested and tried member of the ship she has joined. It’s easy to fall into her story and character, seeing how her book knowledge and talent comes up against the very messy nature of real life. Her appealing personality, her sense of determination and drive, make her adventures and trials and triumphs all the more sweet and fun to read.
As much as this novel is Aimee de Laurent’s story and follows her growth, the novel is equally, or perhaps slightly more so, Lord Azrael’s story. What starts off as appearing to just provide an enemy point of view on the situation and nothing more soon turns into a character arc of growth, change and discovery for the fearsome knight of the Eternal Order. In fact, I will go so far as to argue that the protagonist of the novel, in the original formulation of the concept, is indeed Lord Azrael. He is the one that drives the actions that others respond to. He’s the center of this novel, his failings, shortcomings, strengths and successes determining the tempo of the narrative. Aimee, her fellow crewmembers, the residents of Port Providence and even his fellow Eternal Order knights revolve around his drives. It’s a balancing act, and in some ways, Azrael is the most charismatic character of the novel. The author doesn’t quite let the novel get away from him, but this is definitely the kind of read where if you do not like to have a villain front and center, this is not the book for you.
That said, though, the novel remains fun and engaging throughout. The author may have used some rather obvious inspirations, but it’s the characters, execution and erudition that make it much more than a pastiche or a knockoff, but a work that stands on its own that drew in me as a reader and entertained me until its conclusion.
Overall, Skyfarer is a successful and promising debut. I look forward to the future adventures of Elysium and hope to see much more of the world and characters.