Updraft is Fran Wilde’s debut novel, and an absolute delight to read, a coming of age story set in a truly original world, blending romance, conspiracy, awesome training montages, and some good-old-fashioned adventure to create a book that’s impossible to put down. She’s also planted herself firmly in the “authors to watch” category.
Kirit Densira is a youth in a city built of bone towers. Flying on gliders that resembles wings is a way of life for her people, and her chief ambition is to earn her wings and join her mother as a trader, securing vital food and resources for her tower. Fate has other plans, and in the wake of a terrible accident (and after breaking several sacred laws), she’s singled out for a special talent. Recruited to join the Singers—a mysterious order that oversees the city’s laws and traditions and protects the towers from skymouths, invisible tentacled flying beasts that haunt the clouds—she must figure out how to exist within in a strange new culture. Soon enough, she finds herself disturbed at how many secrets the order keeps in the name of tradition. Her investigation launches a series of events that will change the city forever.
Wilde’s book bridges the divide between adventurous entertainment and serious messaging, surrounding important thematic material with compelling action and endearing characters. The writing is dynamic; the book catches you and pulls you along in its wake. The scenes of Kirit’s flight training, her explorations of the city’s mysteries, and her rough integration into the Singers’s culture are vivid and memorable. Her character arc is expertly crafted, with an emotional accessibility that will hold a lot of appeal for young adult readers—like the best heroines of recent memory, Wilde puts Kirit through her paces as she soars through the book, but there is never a point where the plot steps in to push her around. Kirit has agency, and she steers the narrative.
The core of the book is the relationship between Kirit and the secretive Singers. There’s not a lot of fantasy books for which the term “dystopian” feels appropriate in a political context, but that’s what we have here: this society is carefully managed by a mysterious ruling class that isn’t accountable to anyone. Wilde builds her world in small bits, carefully dropping hints about the origins of the bone structures and the magic that binds them, setting up a reasonable motive for the Singers’ iron-winged rule: without their careful efforts, the city would crack apart, individual towers would go to war, and chaos would rule the skies.
Intentionally or not, though, the Singers have overrun the balance between maintaining social order and oppressing the people they’re sworn to protect. There isn’t a sense of rebellion until Kirit—an outsider who comes to their traditions with a fresh eye—upsets the balance. It’s an important message in an age when people don’t trust—with good reason—many real world institutions that seem to have lost touch with the people they serve, whether that’s police departments, major corporations, or governmental bodies. These themes enrich the story without overpowering it, and would make Updraft well worth reading if it wasn’t already such a pleasure to do so.