Spensa has always dreamed of being a pilot. When she was a child her father was a pilot for the DDF, the military force that protects the planet Detritus from alien Krell incursions. But one fateful day during a defining battle against the Krell, her father ran from the battle, died, and was labeled a coward. As a result, Spensa and her mother and grandmother live on the fringes of society. But now that Spensa has come of age, she can test for pilot training and prove to everyone that cowardice doesn’t run in the family.
But the DDF doesn’t make it easy for her.
She passes the test, but it takes interference from her father’s old wingman, Cobb, to make it possible for her to attend flight school. The admiral has something against the daughter of The Coward, and feels like Spensa will put others at risk at a time when every able-bodied fighter is crucial; the admiral doesn’t even let Spensa bunk or eat with the other flight school students. It isn’t fair, but Spensa doesn’t give up. She loves to fly, and is good at it, showing she’s DDF pilot material.
However, Spensa is a teenager with a chip on her shoulder and it shows. She’s aggressive, loud-mouthed, rude, and insubordinate. On their first day Spensa labels the rich-kid Jorgen as ‘Jerkface’ and it sticks, ending up eventually — to his chagrin — as his callsign. Probably not the best way to endear oneself to one’s flight leader. His parents were pilots, but were honorably discharged, and their status gives Jorgen status. Being a pilot is a status symbol in a world where defending the planet from the Krell affects everyone’s survival. Unless you’re labeled a coward.
Told from Spensa’s PoV, we watch as her and her flight group learn on training consoles, but do get a chance early on to use the ships. We watch as they learn the hard way that this isn’t a game, but real life, and that there are consequences when fighting aliens. We see a crack in Spensa’s tough exterior as her friends drop out of the program, one by one, and she continues getting flak from the admiral.
There’s the flight school, but just as important is the mysterious ship she finds in a cave not far off base. The ship is too damaged to fly, but most importantly it’s been on the planet longer than her own people who crash-landed some 70-odd years ago — and unlike her DDF ship, this one has an AI.
She names it M-Bot. As a character, M-Bot is our comedic relief, with Sanderson’s characteristic goofy humor injected in its conversation with Spensa and its single-minded desire to catalogue mushrooms. Think ENDER’S GAME meets HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON with some of his ALCATRAZ VS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS humor. And while Spensa’s secret may potentially help the DDF in their fight against the Krell, it’s not hard to imagine why she’d want to keep a find like M-Bot to herself, what with visions of glory running around her head.
SKYWARD took a few chapters to get going, the set-up necessary to understand Spensa’s situation. But once it starts moving, the book is impossible to put down. Sanderson knows how to tell a story with a believable female lead who must overcome a social stigma, but also forge her own role in a society that doesn’t know what to do with her. I enjoyed watching her grow and change and uncover the details of a painful past. I wish there were more of her interactions with her mother and grandmother, or of her relationship with her father, although we do see the result of the fallout. Instead the time is spent with watching her flight mates get to know her, and it’s easy to see why they like and trust her.
The secondary characters are easy to recognize, they stand out without becoming background noise to Spensa’s story. M-Bot as an important character comes a little late to the game, and its appearance feels too convenient, but I can’t deny the ship’s importance to the story. There are a few things about the story/events/characters that felt contrived, but since it’s a YA novel, I focused more on the story and didn’t get sidetracked by minor issues. The castaway planet where the stranded Earthlings live in caves isn’t anything new, but he still gives the setting enough differentiation to spice it up. Fortunately flight school issues are superseded by Sanderson’s usual battle scene style: unusual elements are thrown in that take the fights beyond the norm.
Plus there’s a Doomslug. So there’s that.
As is usually the case with a Sanderson book, all the important details lead up to a final scene that will leave you wanting more. And it looks like we’ll get more in a sequel out next year.
Seriously, don’t let your teens miss this one.
- Recommended Age: 12+, it's really geared toward a YA audience but adults will enjoy it, too
- Language: None; they use a placeholder word for swearing
- Violence: Ship dogfights can lead to explosions and death
- Sex: Some awkward flirting and teen crushing