The Splinter In The Sky – Stuck In My Craw

A war has just ended. The Emperor of the Holy Vaalbaran Empire surrendered to the Ominirish Republic after the death of their daughter. Enitan, a scribe from the imperial territory of Koriko, is hoping to grow her own tea business when disaster strikes. Her sibling is abducted by Vaalbaran forces, and her lover, the Vaalbaran governor of Koriko, has been assassinated. To avoid unrest, the Empire demands a hostage, and Enitan volunteers in the hopes that she can find her stolen sibling. She is whisked away to serve as personal emissary to the new God Emperor, and thrown into the palace intrigue that plagues the Holy Vaalbaran Empire. Armed with only her wits and her teas, she is contracted by the Republic to spy on the new God Emperor. Menkhet, the new Emperor, has other plans and hires Enitan to spy on her own aristocrats to secure her new title. Will Enitan be able to keep her plans secret, and still escape with her sibling?

The Splinter in the Sky, by Kemi Ashing-Giwa, is a debut space opera that explores the nature of empire through the eyes of one of its subjects as they deal with the duality of assimilation. It’s a palace intrigue story that follows a woman who has no plans for vengeance, and abhors violence as she learns the rules of empire. While it doesn’t do anything particularly new within the space, it offers a fun exciting romp, with a lead who struggles to maintain her humanity in a world that is far more brutal and exacting than she expected. While this would normally appeal to me, I think The Splinter In The Sky skews more towards a simpler narrative than I normally prefer.

Each chapter is well paced, leading to either a revelation, an action set piece, or a quiet moment between newly bonding friends. It’s readable, and moves quickly from event to event making for a fast paced thriller where the clock feels like it’s always about to run out. While it makes for an exciting novel, I found that it breezed past some of the more interesting implications of the worldbuilding. I never felt like I had time to breathe it in, and it left me wanting.

However, Enitan is a great fish out of water. She is proud, but understands the dual nature of her presence. She is both incredibly noticeable, but able to slip behind the perception of those around her as they assume she is lesser. She uses it to great advantage to collect secrets as most just see her as a curiosity of service, not an intriguing person in her own right. Ashing-Giwa captures these moments with deftness, showing how situations change based on the type of people Enitan engages with. Unfortunately, some of these scenes also went by quickly as Enitan is called away on more important business, and they can sometimes come off as fluff.

On the whole, the characters feel a little wonky to me. I liked Enitan, but I wasn’t subsumed by her narrative. I felt for her plight, and understood her motivations, but I also felt disconnected in some way. While it’s harder for the stakes to be higher in the sense that her lover was killed, and her sibling kidnapped, I just didn’t feel personally for Enitan. I didn’t feel brought into her problems and perspective, despite the perspective of the story. The stakes were raised instantly and I didn’t get a deeper feeling beyond the general sadness and the rage I should feel at her situation. She has a clear sense of morality heading into the Splinter, and tries to adhere to it, but fails out of necessity, learning the nature of empire in the process. Still, even her journey feels a little unpronounced. I don’t need lessons spelled out for me by the book, but I’m not entirely sure that Enitan really changes a whole lot during her time on Vaalbaran. She just sort of seems to do what is necessary, despite her hate of those actions.

But everyone else around her just felt unmoored and frankly, a little unhinged. The God Emperor herself, while interesting in her position and the power she wields, was a little too free traveling for my tastes. I understand that the setting gives Menkhet a little room to be a person, and to slip away from prying eyes, but for pete’s sake, what were her duties to the Empire? It seems like all she had to do was show up for social functions, and carry out the occasional sacrifice with the use of her ax. Which would have been an interesting discussion, but it seems completely ignored. Otherwise, she can just sort of pal around with Enitan with disguises as they both cavort around the Splinter. I had a hard time just accepting someone with so much power, be it tangible or symbolic, could so easily just disappear to get up to hijinx. The rest of the supporting cast just didn’t really have much else to do. That’s not even to get into the flurry of characters that appear for a moment, disappear, and then reoccur as an important hinge point in the various plans.

As much as I liked the setting, I also found myself confused by it. I felt like I didn’t really know where things were in relation to the Empire and the Republic. I got confused about whether the various colonies were on different planets, or if everything was self-contained on the same main planet. I understood that the major power players, the Empire and the Republic were at war on the same planet, but how far it extended I was at a loss. This was also an issue with Enitan’s travels within the Empire itself. I just never felt grounded around a specific focal point that gave a sense of distance. This mostly became an issue during the several times that Enitan or Menkhet was involved in saving the other’s life. It just drained any tension that had any time to build up.

Which leads to my last gripe, the pacing. Everything just sort of happened. Personally, I like a little buildup. On some days, I’ll even take an inordinate amount of buildup for a single bombastic mindblowing payoff. But The Splinter In the Sky just moved from set piece to set piece, especially once the main plot really kicked off. It felt like I was watching chess pieces just get removed in a time lapse video, only for the board to be repopulated and watch it happen again. It’s not to the point of all payoff, there are definitely a couple of neat set ups, but I just found the “set it up and immediately knock it down” formula tiring by the halfway point.

I wanted to like this book more. It has a lot of fun weird things in it that needed some time to bloom. It views empire and co-optation with an aggressive stance that felt fresh, despite the fact that it just seemed to rely on “empire bad” as a core theme. While the relationship between Enitan and Menkhet was fun and occasionally interesting, the entire cast needed more time to stew with each other to really dig into their psyches, motivations and shifting alliances. If you can forgive all of those bits, it is an exciting downhill train ride, but it starts mostly at the top already.

Rating: The Splinter In The Sky – 5.5/10
– Alex

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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.

2 thoughts on “The Splinter In The Sky – Stuck In My Craw

  1. Thank you for this. I just finished the novel and had so many questions. You confirmed all my suspicions. There was so much here to love, and the author at times totally nails much of the emotional experience of the protagonist, but so much of it reads as if the scenes were pulled of the shelves of a grocery store. This would have been the perfect novel to explore the downside of colonialism, had there been a character in the mix smart and kind enough to listen to Enitan and allow her to explain. Let us hope her next novel is better.

    1. I’m glad I was able to match your frustrations. I think your point about having a character that exists in the in between of The Splinter and colonial subject would have been a great space to explore some of the deeper concerns the author seems to want to scratch at. I too, look forward to their next novel.

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