Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.
I bought Updraft in the same set of Con or Bust auctions as I got The Fifth Season, and in fact read this immediately after Jemisin’s novel; which, perhaps, led me to do something of a disservice to Updraft, for reasons that will become clear…
Updraft combines coming of age tale with deep political intrigue from a secretive faction riven with strife over how best to interact with the community around it, whose law it enforces and whom it functionally rules over as something of an oppressive force. If those themes seem familiar, that would probably be because they are; Wilde isn’t doing anything wildly groundbreaking in an abstracted-out view of her debut, and fits into a long tradition of genre fiction that deals with hidden secrets and young men bringing them to light. While being a description so far abstracted as to be almost meaningless, it’s also not actually unfair to Updraft; it does fit into that long tradition and does surprisingly little, female protagonist aside, to buck it, instead making the unique selling point more about setting than character or plot.
The setting is, to give Wilde her due, new, unique, and impressive; a set of towers rising out of the clouds, travel between which is done on semi-manpowered wings that are somewhere between Leonardo-like creations and personal gliders. Some towers are connected by bridges, and some are shorter than others; both controlled by the Singers, these are markers of status, which can be lost or gained by individual as well as corporate actions from within the towers. This forms part of a strong, broad society that is heavily bound up with rules, traditions, laws and hierarchies; different levels of the towers represent different statuses in society, and different roles give different status. One important element of Updraft is the lack of warriors in this culture; violence, between or within towers, is horrific, acceptable only within very specific circumstances related directly to the Spire and bound with rules and customs. There seems to be an unthinking patriarchy at work in the novel; although there is no explicit patriarchal practice, all the high-status decision makers, faction-leaders and key figures of importance in the novel with the one exception of our protagonist are male, something that isn’t obvious at the time but that stands out in retrospect especially in contrast with The Fifth Season, in which Jemisin had leadership roles filled by men and women, with if anything more women in visible leadership roles.
Once the reader gets passed the fascinating, original setting, though, Updraft settles into almost distressingly trōpic models; we follow the essentially naïve character of Kirit as she breaks the laws of society and starts to see how that will affect her – and then starts to penetrate the secrets of the Singers and the society of towers in which she lives, seeing the things that run under the surface and maturing as she discovers more. The problem isn’t with such maturation so much as the trope-driven trajectory of the maturation; losing Kirit’s mother, discovering more about her father, and then meeting her father, for instance, is the kind of model that we’ve seen in many stories, and Updraft doesn’t really add anything to the standard model of it that we read time and again. Similarly, her discovery of the underlying conspiracies and dark truths of her community aren’t particularly revelatory to the reader; they’re not quite expected and standard, but nor are they particularly unexpected, and there’s a certain cartoonishness to the evil characters of the novel, who are the characters we expect to be the ones in the wrong from the word go. Their motivations are poorly described, and their course of action is simply seen – by both novel and characters – as wrong, in part because its underlying cause isn’t clear; instead there seems to simply be evil for the sake of evil occurring.
Updraft also never really throws the reader out in terms of what they expect from the plot; Wilde delivers the revelations and the character-development in a very straight manner, without ever really surprising the reader even when the characters and even the narrative itself seem shocked by the choices Wilde has made. Updraft keeps trying to make shocking turns, without quite managing it; they’re too telegraphed or things we’ve seen too many times before to be surprised by, and there is so little emotional engagement in the plot that rises above pure manipulation into actual feeling that this feels like a writer who has created a beautiful, fascinating world, but hasn’t quite worked out how to show it off, let alone tell us about its dark side, except through terribly tropic plots and characters.
In the end, Updraft has an awful lot of promise, but feels more like a gaming book than a novel: Wilde has created an amazing world, but populated it with little more than cardboard cut-outs and a plot that goes little beyond a moderately well made video game.