It’s going to be a long summer full of novels with the word sky in them. It won’t be long before you see reviews of The Deep Sky and The Splinter in the Sky from yours truly. Though I would be lying if I said I weren’t excited by the prospect of reading each and every one of them. The first one, The Surviving Sky, by Kritika Rao, is one I have been looking forward to for a long time. Suffice it to say, The Surviving Sky is a pure delight as it soars through a conglomeration of deteriorating and damaged relationships between people, the planet, and the inner workings of the world.
The Earth rages, turning soil and quaking the land, making life generally impossible for humans. So they took to the sky, in flying, living cities known as ashrams. These ashrams are built and guided by the architects, a select group of people who have a special ability to manipulate the consciousness of various life forms around them, though their powers are relegated to mostly affecting the plant life. Iravan is one of the most powerful architects on the scene, and even he is beginning to feel that his connection to the world around him is waning. Ahilya, his wife, sees his power and the ashram’s reliance on the architects to be a disaster in waiting. But when Iravan is accused of being an ecstatic, taking his powers beyond the limits society deems tolerable, he needs Ahilya to help him clear his name. But as they both dig deeper into the mysteries of the earth-rages and their possible connection to the architects, what they may find might not only endanger their marriage, but the fate of the ashrams across the sky.
The Surviving Sky is a lush and inviting debut from Rao. The novel’s world is vibrant and populated by people who feel whole and are devoted to understanding its mysteries, even as they try to flatten it for their own survival. The main protagonists are rich with emotion, dreams, anxieties and scorn. They can’t help but oscillate between their various states of being as the small physical reactions and lilt of their words form traps that spiral into interpersonal strife. The political regimes feel fostered and earned, with decades if not centuries worth of momentum and history pushing them forward. The magic/technology is awe inducing, with Rao painting vivid scenes of living, floating cities and starry double visions that cloud as much as they reveal the essential nature of the world. It is a world defined by strife, both between its characters, and the characters and the world itself. It’s intoxicating in its complexity.
Rao presents the reader with grandeur, but mediated through the eyes of a failing relationship. Ahilya and Iravan feel like a couple that has been through the ringer, time and again. A latent tension has built up between them, a strain that both have seen grow. It’s a tension they both had a hand in cultivating as well. Rao navigates a jungle of emotions that lets you sympathize with both sides, never allowing the reader to sit comfortably with either one. They aren’t fully shitty people, but they have been shitty to each other. They can be incredibly sweet as well, but their own ambitions and dreams have chipped away at their love for so long, it’s hard to see whether any foundation is left at all. It’s brutally and beautifully captured by Rao’s ability to convey the chain of emotions within both Ahilya and Iravan. They each have their own triggers, their own observations of each other that can set off the bombs that their tempers have become. Their relationship is fraying at an exponential rate, even as they try to find moments of stability and “normalcy” within it.
But she also cleverly reveals how they can forgive each other in the smallest ways that allow them to see the person they fell in love with. Again and again, in these small, but exponential, cycles. The negative outweighs the good through most of the story, burdened by small physical reactions, and the unspoken argument between them about the city’s future. Ahilya believes that the city depends too much on the architects, and leaves little room for the regular people who live in the shadow of the temple. Iravan feels that the architects aren’t lionized enough for what they do, even as their abilities start to wane. He sits on the council, reminding Ahilya that no one else contributes to the success of Ishkar the way that architects do. He has ossified in his position of power, especially after achieving his heights at such a young age, and it drives Ahilya mad. Mad because he used to want to change up the council and distribute the power more evenly so that everyone has a little more to say when it comes to the future of Ishkar.
The stress between the two play well into the long arc of the story as well. Yes, these are people with power, the ability to literally change the world around themselves (in Iravan’s case). Their arguments bleed out into the world, and push and shove against the council and the long standing traditions of the community. They create disturbances among their peers just as they rage against each other.
The surrounding mystery is interwoven into this marital strife as well. The earth-rages are growing longer, with less time for reprieve between them. It weakens the resolve and the abilities of those able to keep the city afloat. Ahilya and Iravan’s influence on their respective factions also creates a paralytic stress amongst them. There is a lack of balance and strong communication about what is happening. Dark secrets are kept by the architects, hidden from the public in the name of protection. These secrets chip away at the community in the same way that it degrades Ahilya and Iravan’s relationship. Rao strongly reinforces the theme of connection over and over again showing how even this one relationship, given its particular location within the city and society, causes great disruption.
And while it’s readily apparent in the verbal confrontations between the two, Rao magnifies this theme through the magic/technology with The Surviving Sky. Iravan, as an architect, can tap into the consciousness of the world. He views the world through a double vision, seeing a constellation of stars that he can connect at will. This allows him to manipulate the plants of the city, opening and closing doors, repairing damage, and landing it when a rage has subsided. And Iravan is very good at trajecting, he knows it on a deep level and though it’s about connections it also separates him from the world in many ways. He starts to see everything as a tug, a nudge here and there and as his power wanes, it also affects his power in the material world as the council and his wife begin to question his position and intent.
And while it is cool to see the magic/technology that Rao has envisioned, her limits on it are doubly profound. It is not about a physical limitation, but instead a reinforcement through societal values. Whether they are good values is up for debate (though they are pretty strong foundations), but they exist not because of some ethereal limit of the world, but because people recognized the dangers of such power. They recognize the chance that someone may get lost in sauce, and they have tests that allow them to ferret out the dangerous slide into being “ecstatic,” lost in the power. And it’s not a series of bells and whistles, but something that runs deeper, and digs into the core of who someone is. The scenes where this test is employed are magnificent and tense. Emotions roll through them like waves beating against a shoreline. It’s a reminder that technology is a tool, and the only ones who can truly recognize its sharpness are those who hone it.
Rao’s novel is a jungle. It’s dark, and in some areas you can’t see that far ahead of you. It is a place full of potential terror, imagined or real. But it is also vibrant, lush and full of life. There are flows and balances that are never fully accounted for, nor will they ever be. It’s contradiction and fury butting against remediation and retribution. It is full, messy and though it can be mean, it can be generous. The Surviving Sky offers so much, and refrains from taking anything away. So put down your machete, take a deep breath, and take a journey into the jungle that is Rao’s The Rages.
Rating: The Surviving Sky 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.