A couple of generations ago, our world suffered the outbreak of a plague that renders the infected zombie-like and feral, reduced to an animalistic existence of eating, fighting, breeding, and dying. The survivors have mostly taken to the skies, living in airships or elevated settlements the Ferals can’t reach, and exercising an extreme caution against infection that has resulted in a society where trust and bodily contact are minimised. Ben Gold, captain of the airship the Cherub, takes on a contract guarding the scientists of a settlement seeking a cure — something few still believe in — but when they want to bring one of the deadly contagious Ferals aboard ship to investigate an anomaly in its blood, he balks… until the ruthless tactics of an expansionist old enemy threaten to wipe out the scientists and their settlement, drawing Ben back into the fight.
Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse, sort of, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Zombies are pretty played out at the moment, but the author uses a light touch with the Ferals, and instead plays to a far more topical and far more likely fear — infection. Awareness that a single drop of blood, a single spatter of saliva, a moment of unnoticed contact with any number of bodily fluids unsavoury or otherwise, and you have in your very veins a silent passenger that will soon rob you of your humanity. It’s a society where people are afraid to expose skin, to touch, to have sex, to have children, because to allow closeness with anyone is an act of ultimate trust in their honesty, their competence and their vigilance. One kiss and you could have two days left to know your own name.
It’s an awareness that dogs the characters’ steps every moment, and both the ramifications for Ben’s psyche and the broader strokes of the impact it’s had on the surviving societies he encounters are well-drawn. The organic and evocative worldbuilding is easily my favourite part of the novel, and straight off the bat I think the author’s got a good knack for providing a sense of place and of history without info-dumping.
The story moves along at a nice clip, packing a lot into a pretty slender book without leaving the reader feeling short-changed, and so making me inclined to forgive a few minor contrivances and gaps in logic. I did feel the ending was rushed, and was actually surprised it didn’t just leave off at a cliffhanger; as frustrating as the wait for another book can be, I might have preferred that it did, because the resolution is too pat for my tastes. It felt like Khanna planned on either a larger page count or another book, and threw together this ending when he realised he might not be able to write it.
Ben is a likeable enough character, sometimes hypocritical and sometimes weak in ways that are believeable for the surroundings in which he’s grown and the history he’s lived through, without making him unsympathetic. Most of the others are lightly drawn but not lacking in personality, aside from Miranda, who seems to disappear and reappear as needed to bait Ben into the right place for the plot to move forward, and for someone who so provokes his desire, it would be nice if we had a better glimpse into what it is about her as a person that’s desirable. If there’s a sequel I think I’d appreciate a change of narrator, perhaps to Miranda herself, as she seems to be a prime candidate for being at the heart of the story and could use the fleshing out. I do feel like this story was a complete arc for Ben, and the loose threads could be tied up while seeing him through someone else’s eyes.
I have some real problems with the writing from a technical standpoint, and it brought me out of the book several times. Look, I know it’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction, but you should really reconsider doing it six times in a row. Otherwise you end up with abominations like this:
And it is. And I’m happy. But we’re going to have to go get the Ferrari. And it might not work with the fuel he’s got. And it will put us out in the middle of Feral territory. But it’s a place to live.
I’d accept it as a way of conveying panicked thought on the narrator’s part were it not so damn frequent. The book is absolutely littered with examples of such, though, so it comes off as either bad writing or a great deal of simple-mindedness on Ben’s part. Mostly just bad writing. I also appreciate the idea of transitioning from longer sentences to shorter, choppier ones as a means of ramping up the tension during action-packed moments, and can think of a number of authors who do it very well, but there’s a painful number of sentences in Falling Sky that aren’t choppy so much as horribly fragmented. For example:
As tense as I am right now, as strongly as I want to yell at her to get out. Now. So we don’t get captured and killed. In spite of all that, I can’t help but be captivated by her, standing here, now, doing what she does best. Think. Process. Calculate. Solve.
I don’t need either of these devices to be eliminated, just toned way the fuck down so that I am not constantly taken out of the story by them. Used sparingly, they might be effective, but here they are just too frequent to be anything but irritating and repetitious.
I’d enjoy a sequel, and I hope there’s plans for one. If not, I look forward to seeing what the author turns his worldbuilding talents to next. But if the editing isn’t a little tighter, I might need a drink before I review it. And another drink. And another. Drink. Now. Really.