The sky’s the limit for fantasy novelists looking to explore new vistas for world-building, quite literally in the case of David Daglish’s Skyborn, the first volume his Seraphim trilogy.
Set on six islands floating high above the Endless Ocean, Skyborn tells the tale of two orphaned twins, Kael and Brenna Skyborn. Amidst a brutal civil war, the Skyborn twins train to become mighty Seraphim, elite aerial combat soliders who command the very elements—ice, fire, stone, and lightning. When invasion comes, the twins must don their wings and ready their blades to save those they love from total annihilation.
If you turn to the author’s note at the back, you’ll find Daglish’s ode to the novel’s peculiar inspiration: not another novel, but Chrono Trigger, a 20-year-old video game. “Ever since third grade, I’ve wanted to tell a story about a civilization in the sky,” says Daglish. “Something about the imagery has always fascinated me, and it started with the floating land of Zeal from an old Super Nintendo RPG … I wanted a civilization in the clouds, and only the clouds. I wanted to fully embrace every aspect of it instead of creating a juxtaposition between earthbound and skyborn. Most of all, I wanted to convey the thrill of flying.”
As an enormous Chrono Trigger fan, I couldn’t help but feel an immediate bond with Daglish and his love for that 16-bit city in the sky. It also got me thinking about some of my other favorite airborne civilizations: Laputa from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Castle in the Sky; Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Castle in the Air; Cloud City on Bespin, home of everyone’s second-favorite scoundrel, Lando Calrissian; and Shevat, the mysterious flying citadel from Xenogears, another video game.
Ever since Pisthetaerus dreamed of Cloud Cuckoo Land, sky-borne societies—whole worlds, populous cities, abandoned castles—have been a source of endless imagination and wonder for fantasy fans. From Swift’s first speculations about Laputa, to Fran Wilde’s resource-scarce bone spires, to the fallen sky city of Kho, it’s fascinating to explore the world outside of gravity’s grasp. Here are some of my favorite books that do just that.
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
No collection of skyborne fantasies would be complete without mentioning Jonathan Swift’s seminal masterpiece. Gulliver visits Laputa, a floating civilization that blindly pursues science without purpose, and the methods and results are at once amusing and slightly terrifying. Many readers cite the Laputian tactic of dropping rocks on rebellious earthbound cities as one of the first conceptualizations of airborne warfare. Like a lot of the elements in Swift’s novel, Laputa’s DNA is entwined with pretty much any modern piece of speculative fiction that features a flying city, castle, or society.
World of Howl Collection, by Diana Wynne Jones
I can’t very well mention Swift’s Laputa without also coming ’round to Diana Wynne Jones’ classic trilogy consisting of Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and House of Many Ways. The wizard Howl’s castle might roam on legs when readers are first introduced to it in the opening volume of the trilogy, but, by Castle in the Air, it has taken to the clouds. Wynne has a tremendous talent for creating vivid worlds rich with entertaining characters, and the World of Howl Collection is the perfect introduction to her charms.
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Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson
“Anomander Rake knows nothing of Moon’s Spawn’s fullest powers – powers he has no means of accessing even were he to know of them.” (Memories of Ice, p.696-7)
Moon’s Spawn is a terrifying floating fortress—like a blackened tooth in the air. Home to Anomander Rake, Moon’s Spawn central to the Siege of Pale, an epic three-year confrontation that kicks off Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, one of the longest, most complex, and most beloved series in modern fantasy. It’s impossible not to be awed by the might of Rake’s travelling home—it’s ominous and powerful, with a history that stretches back into time forgotten. That Anomander Rake, one of the most fearsome characters in the genre, cannot control its full power is a frightening thought. Erikson has penned some incredible set pieces, and Moon’s Spawn is one of his greatest creations.
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
Like many flying islands and cities, those in the Three Worlds, home to Wells’ Books of the Raksura, are buoyed by magical rocks. Naturally, some of the (many and varied) earthbound humanoids have harnessed their power (the rocks retain their anti-gravity properties even when removed from the islands) to power flying boats. Moon, a Raksura (a race of shapeshifting humanoids) without familial ties, is ostracized by his adopted tribe, and his quest for a place to call home sets him off on a series of grand adventures.
City of the Fallen Sky, by Tim Pratt
In a fun twist to the cities and castles already featured, Tim Pratt’s novel in the Pathfinder Tales line follows Alaeron, a young alchemist fleeing the Technic League, who is strong-armed into a dangerous expedition to find the fabled flying city of Koh, which now lies, bursting with treasure, in the deeps of the Mwangi Expanse where it crashed hundreds of years ago. Along the way, Alaeron makes unexpected friends, terrifying enemies, and discovers the secrets of a device plundered from a fallen spacecraft. (If you want to know more about the Pathfinder Tales, check out my introduction to the series.)
Updraft, by Fran Wilde
Wilde’s debut is one of the most imaginative and entertaining books released this year, and a huge part of that is her dedication to building a multi-faceted fantasy world unlike any readers have encountered before. Set amongst bone spires reaching high about the clouds, the land below nothing but a myth and long-forgotten memory, Updraft tells the story of Kirit Densira, a plucky youngster who dreams of catching the same air currents as her mother Ezarit, one of the bravest traders in the bone city, but runs afoul of politics and flying tentacle monsters. Wilde does a tremendous job of considering the socioeconomic impact of a society forced to survive at such lofty heights. Created to escape an earthbound apocalypse, the bone spires are both extraordinary and mundane: they’re growing, constantly forcing residents upwards as the lower layers become more dense, and though the very sky might swallow you whole, life goes one, just as it does in any normal society.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first volume of her Inheritance trilogy, is one of the finest fantasy novels of the past decade, thanks in huge part to the majestic setting, the city of Sky. Yeine Darr’s first glimpse of it is breathtaking:
This was the city called Sky. On the ground, sprawling over a small mountain or an oversized hill: a circle of high walls, mounting tiers of buildings, all resplendent in white, per Arameri decree. Above the city, smaller but brighter, the pearl of its tiers occasionally obscured by scuds of cloud, was the palace, also called Sky, and perhaps more deserving of the name. I knew the column was there, the impossibly thin column that supported such a massive structure, but from that distance I couldn’t see it. Palace floated above city, linked in spirit, both so unearthly in their beauty that I held my breath at the sight.
Full of visual splendor, Sky (both the mile-high palace and the city itself) is a riveting fantasy locale—and Yeine, a chieftain of a matriarchal warrior society, is a complex and charismatic lead.
The fantasy genre is filled with incredible vistas and interesting people, and, as the books above prove, authors need not be confined by simple gravity as they dream up their fantastical worlds. With Skyborn, David Daglish is living a childhood dream—by setting his sights high above the clouds, he’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities. What are some of your favorite cities, castles, or societies in the sky?