Updraft is an exciting, inventive debut novel with a delightful protagonist and a unique and totally unexpected setting. I often think that authors have to pick and choose where they want to do things that are new and fresh and different, and Fran Wilde has chosen really well here by writing a relatively pedestrian story in a fascinating new fantasy world.
Kirit has never wanted to do anything other than become her mother’s apprentice and learn to be a trader between the tower communities that make up the world of Updraft, but her plans are derailed just days before she’s supposed to take her flight test so she can travel freely around the cities. The plot of Updraft is a simple one, really, a fairly classic coming-of-age-with-complications story as Kirit finds herself forced into a role she never wanted and starts uncovering secrets that make her question everything she thinks she knows.
You can tell when reading Updraft that Wilde has really thought about every aspect of this world, and probably her greatest achievement is in the society she’s invented for the people who inhabit her bone tower cities. The largely oral traditions are well-thought-out in a world where lack of trees and paper would make for minimal written communication, and this is also, to a large degree, where the major ideas and themes of the novel come from. In a world without written records, who controls information, who has the power, and how does that affect a civilization?
Also, there are huge monsters called skymouths that sound something like enormous aerial squids and something like flying gulper eels. And it’s never exactly spelled out, but the bones these people are living on might be growing out of the back of something even bigger.
While I’ve read reviews that class Kirit as an “unlikable” heroine, I adored her. It’s refreshing to read about a girl character who isn’t anxious from the beginning to sacrifice herself for some greater cause, and I love that Kirit has a bit of a stubborn, selfish streak. Kirit doesn’t want any part of being some kind of chosen one, and she only participates in “destiny” under duress and with no romantic notions about it. Kirit is a tough girl from the start, and Updraft is the story of how she grows into a strong woman with a well-developed sense of civic responsibility.
Also a nice change from many other books about young heroines, Kirit isn’t neatly paired off with a man at the end of the novel. Instead, she’s made over her society and stands ready to be a significant part of a future that is very different from their history up to this point.
So far, it looks as if Updraft is planned as a standalone novel, but I rather hope that Fran Wilde returns to this world and these characters. For all that this is a book that deals mostly with the uncovering of secrets, I still feel as if there’s a lot more to be explored. I, for one, would still like to know what exactly the bone towers are the bones of.