BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Reed’s newest novel offers astoundingly vivid world-building and visuals that set the stage for an unusual coming of age story.
PROS: Astonishingly unique world; interesting characters; a true blending of science fiction and fantasy elements.
CONS: Uneven pacing; world building descriptions can be infodumpy; ending won’t have as big an impact for readers unfamiliar with Reed’s previous Great Ship novels Marrow or The Well of Stars.
BOTTOM LINE: Reed presents a fascinating and alluring world, but muddled exposition gets in the way of enjoying every level of the story.
I’ve enjoyed every Robert Reed short story I’ve come across, so I figured it was time to try one of his longer novels. It’s very difficult to talk about this story without dumping a lot of plot on you, but please trust me when I say I’m barely scratching the surface of the plot and the far-reaching consequences. The world-building and sprawling plot are presented in a very dense way, and there is a lot to tell.
Let’s talk about world-building first, because it’s as stunningly vivid as it is complex.
Creatures who fly up from a demon floor at the bottom of the world, the sun being below you and the roots of the trees above, a culture that’s been built around an almost whaling-like industry — is this fantasy or science fiction? In a deft blend, The Memory of Sky offers up the hunting of fantastical creatures, steampunk style contraptions, genetically manipulated humans, nuclear weapons, and a natural environment whose physics took a while for me to wrap my head around. Two races precariously share this world: the humans, who build their complicated homes on along the massive trunks of massive trees and hunt the giant Coronas with huge flying machines, and the more tribal Papio who live outside of the forest on giant coral reefs. It is a delicate thing, as the Papio require restitution of sorts for the Coronas that are slaughtered on their land, and the humans often use the Corona parts for weapons and armor to use against the Papio.
For a better visual of what this world looks like, think about a kelp forest. Take the water out, but keep the physics. Now flip the entire thing upside down, so the sun is at the bottom, and the roots are on the “ceiling”, making a canopy with emptiness above it. The earth doesn’t rotate, the sun never sets, so there aren’t any hours or years to measure by. Time is counted in days, and not all days are the same length. Studio Ghibli would be right in their element if they chose The Memory of Sky to become their next animated feature.
As far as characters and plot are concerned, it’s a slow burn, which gives the reader plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery. At the beginning of the first volume, we meet a little boy who lives in a small, windowless room. Diamond is a very sickly child, and when his mother Haddi tells him it is too dangerous for him to go outside, he listens, because he loves her. So many (too many) early chapters were spent on exploring his day-to-day life and his toys, that I began to wonder if this was a coming-of-age story aimed for young readers. It is a coming-of-age story, but not at all in the way you think, and in hindsight I wouldn’t give this book to anyone under the age of fifteen.
Diamond’s adopted parents had the best intentions. They wanted to keep their special child a secret. Diamond’s father Merit could easily lose his status and standing if anyone learned he secreted a sleeping child out of the stomach of a giant Corona. Haddi loves yet fears this little boy with the perfect memory and the body that can’t be cut or damaged. Diamond’s special abilities can’t be hidden for long when he’s stabbed in the stomach and then heals perfectly in about five minutes.
The story starts to get interesting once Diamond takes a brave step outside his house, is befriended by some neighborhood kids, and learns he’s not the only special child. The Archon also has an adopted child, one who has taken the name King. King towers over his diminutive adopted father, kept in check only by threats of violence and promises of power. Diamond mostly looks like a little boy, albeit a slightly deformed one, but King on the other hand, is a freak of nature, with two mouths, far too many ears, and flesh that crawls with growths of chitinous armor and spikes. Born out of the same Corona, it’s hard to believe these two unnatural children are brothers.
As the Archon leads the human army to fight the Papio over control of the alien boys, King and Diamond build a strange trust with each other. If they came from the same place, maybe they want the same things? The larger questions that loom are where did they come from, and how long were they in the Corona’s stomach? Might other talented children be found? There is an underlying plotline involving genetics, and how these two boys could be used to father a race of superhumans who will finally triumph over the pesky Papio.
At first, known only to Diamond, is a third strange Corona born child, and then a fourth. Quest, as she calls herself, rarely takes a human’s form. She feels more comfortable taking the form of a bird or small animal,the easier to spy on the humans and the Papio, and the quicker to learn she doesn’t want to be caught by either. The final Corona born creature is known as The Eight, and was raised by the Papio. Eight minds crushed into one body, its current primary voice is that of Divers, but her hold on power over the others is tenuous. This isn’t a case of multiple personality disorder; The Eight really is eight minds crushed over time and pressure in the stomach of a Corona into one body.
The four children want to learn who and what they are, but it’s as if they slept too long in that Corona’s stomach. Each one seems to remember something about their life before, but not enough to be useful. And what will be the cost of their coming of age?
The biggest barrier to my enjoyment of The Memory of Sky was the pacing and muddled exposition. The build up is a slow, subtle burn, and that’s usually a good thing, but for the most part this was too slow and too ethereal, making the novel feel much, much longer than its 624 pages. At the beginning, for example, far too many pages are spent on Diamond’s tiny and sheltered life, to the point where I worry that many readers would put the book down at this point and never pick it back up. Later, too, were pacing and presentation issues that included world building that bordered on infodumpy, as well as abrupt and confusing changes of point of view. I spent over 600 pages in an amazing place, but half the time I couldn’t tell what I was looking at.
The Memory of Sky is presented as a trilogy, and should be read as one long book, as only the third volume has any kind of climactic ending scene. And if you’ve read Reed’s other Great Ship novels? You’ll know all the secrets right from the start, and chances are the slower scenes that bothered me will be gems for you.