The Surviving Sky is the debut novel from Kritika H. Rao, and tells the story of a married man and woman whose relationship is close to breaking point, and who are trying to find a way to reconcile. It’s also a story about the last of humanity surviving the end of the world on giant floating cities made from plants, so there’s something a little bit more unusual thrown into this well crafted human drama.
The book takes place in Nakshar, one of a number of flying plant cities. At some point in the past the Earth became uninhabitable thanks to Earthrages: massive, destructive storms that move across the surface, destroying all human life that they come into contact with. In order to survive, humanity took to the skies.
Thanks to a specialised group of people called engineers, humans found a way of manipulating plant life, shaping it to their will. These engineers are able to enter a special state called trajection, where they’re able to see both the world around them as it exists, and the life-force and connective pathways of flora. Using these connections, engineers can transform plants into everyday objects, from furniture to the buildings that people live in, and even the floating cities that humanity uses as their refuge.
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Whilst this has allowed humanity to survive, it has also resulted in fraught tensions within the last of humanity. The engineers are held up above other citizens, as their survival means the survival of all of humanity. Treated as the best of the best, the engineers have become the leaders of Nakshar; reluctantly sharing a few council seats with the sungineers, the inventors and mechanics of Nakshar.
Iravan is one of the best engineers on the council, able to manipulate plant life in ways others could only ever dream of doing. Despite being one of the best in the city, his marriage has taken a turn for the worse. His wife, Ahilya, is an archaeologist, a profession most see as useless, and is looking into humanity’s past to try to find better ways to exist in the future. Sadly, this often brings the two of them into conflict, especially as she thinks engineers treat those unable to traject as lesser people.
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When Nakshar lands on the Earth below during one of the lulls in the Earthrages, Ahilya sets out into the jungle with a small expedition group to study the animal life that manages to survive the massive disasters, hoping to find information that could lead humans to do the same. However, when a disaster leads to one of the group being killed, and the city is forced to take to the sky again, Iravan is accused of being close to becoming Ecstatic, a state in which engineers lose themselves in their powers and become destructive. However, Iravan insists that something is wrong in the trajection, and that it could spell disaster for the entire city. Now he and Ahilya will have to work together to try to figure out what’s wrong, not only to clear Iravan’s name, but to save all of humanity.
The Surviving Sky is one of those books where you have to double check that it’s a debut novel. There are a lot of times where you see an author’s first novels and you can tell that they’re still trying to find their feet, still figuring out the style they want to use, and how to clearly tell their story. Kritika H. Rao, on the other hand, seems to have arrived on the scene with a firm grasp on the kind of writer they’re going to be. This is not a simple story, nor is the world that Rao has created an easy one to describe.
It has a complex system and a very alien way of living that could result in a book that leaves the reader left behind as they try to figure everything out, but Rao is able to make the most impossible and alien feel real and relatable. More established and experienced writers have tried to craft complex worlds like this, and have failed to convey things in as clear and easy to understand a way as Rao does here. Add onto that, they’re able to craft a wonderfully realistic and engaging human story at the heart of the book too, and this is an author whose career you’re going to want to keep an eye on.
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Speaking of the human relationship, Ahilya and Iravan are messy people. They’re complex, they have flaws, and whilst they both clearly love each other they also both frustrate each other in a lot of ways too. They’re not one of these romantic couples whose relationship is in trouble who just spend a little bit of time together and fall back in love all over again. No, they have to work hard, they have to get over their flaws and annoyances and learn to look past that at what really matters. Their relationship feels incredibly realistic because there are no easy answers for them here, just like there are none in real life.
The Surviving Sky is a wonderfully creative and interesting story, set in a world unlike any other you’ll have seen before. It’s a wonderful mix of science fiction and nature magic that takes the best of both worlds to craft something wholly its own. It’s also a wonderfully inclusive world, filled with loving queer characters, and is inhabited by people of colour (it’s amazingly refreshing to have a story with no white people in it for once). The central mystery will very quickly draw you in, and the realistic human stories will get you invested. The Surviving Sky is a superb debut novel that is hard to find fault with, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next.
The Surviving Sky is out now from Titan Books.