Author: Aliya Whiteley
Title: Skyward Inn
I requested Whiteley’s novel after I’ve read her collection of short stories, From the Neck Up and Other Stories. These were unusual, dark and difficult to classify, straddling the border between horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Not all of them were great, but they were unique enough for me to want to read more, with questions concerning identity and humanity, and a significant dose of body horror thrown in the mix. And so I picked up Skyward Inn, whose blurb admittedly didn’t sound too interesting – I gave it a pass the first time it was available, because it just seemed like another generic “alien encounter” novel. But after reading the short stories I reconsidered: nothing written by Whiteley could be really generic.
My hunch proved correct; Skyward Inn is certainly not your typical “alien encounter” or “first contact” novel, though it is that, too. It starts innocuously enough, with a pair of unlikely partners, a human woman Jem and a Qitan called Isley, managing the titular inn located in a rural and secluded part of Devon that seceded from Earth after Earth invaded Qita. Jem is a veteran of that conflict, filled with regrets and unrealized longings; Isley is her Qitan mirror, similarly disenchanted, similarly filled with vague hope for better future, or a slice of happiness that may never come. They are surrounded by others: Fosse, Jem’s son abandoned by her after birth and raised by her parents and later her brother, Dom; Dom, locked in eternal conflict of unbridgeable differences with her sister; inhabitants of the Western Protectorate, seemingly technologically locked in 19th century and behaving as if they moved back in time to the slowly tamed Wild West.
They all seem content enough, drinking their fill of Qitan main export, a special brew that brings back memories and sharpens emotions, until an unexpected and unwanted visit from Isley’s acquaintance throws the situation entirely off balance; the sudden appearance of this additional presence acts like a catalyst for the whole Qita-Earth relationship, forcing a far-reaching redefinition of their common history – and their future.
Saying anything more would constitute a spoiler, so I’ll stop myself here. Let me focus instead on this novel’s strengths and weaknesses, as it has abundance of both.
Whiteley has a penchant for slow-paced infusion of the weird into everyday life. She’s very skilled at building a feeling of unease and tension, of presenting everyday situations in a way that awakens questions and anxiety. This novel is no exception. Written in a deceptively simple yet quite poetic way, it creates a depth of history filled mostly with negative emotions: regret, dislike, old conflicts, mistrust, defeat. I’ll be honest: I didn’t like any of the characters at the beginning, and nothing that happened in the novel made me warm up to them. They are flawed and seem wilfully locked in their misery, never trying to change, resigned to defeat even before it happens. But I did feel empathy, and pity, and understanding – and I think that may be more important in the long run.
Whiteley has been compared to Le Guin, Faber, and Vandermeer, but I don’t think these comparisons do her justice; for me, most comparisons with Le Guin are certain to bring disappointment and this novel is no exception. While Whiteley deals with similar themes and topics, certainly in discussion with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, she gives them her own spin, fills them with keen attention, or even obsession, with body and its secretions, and is focused more on the peculiarities of individual relationships than humanity’s peculiarities per se. That said, I felt a bit underwhelmed by her portrayal of these relationships; maybe I just like a bit more hope in my books, while the whole air of this novel is subdued, melancholy, and slightly dispiriting. Or maybe it’s my view of the choice Whiteley presents here: I’m hard-pressed to find anything positive in it ;).
A few words on the technical aspects. Skyward Inn is written in two perspectives: first person perspective, narrated by Jem, and third person perspective following Fosse. This rather strange stylistic device seems jarring at first, but begins to make sense in the second half of the novel. I can’t say I became a fan, but after reading the whole thing I do see its merits – or rather, I can’t see how it could be avoided.
Lastly, while Whiteley’s novel is marketed as science fiction, there is very little science, or for that matter logic, in it. It’s better not to approach it with an analytical mind, because it will come apart at the seams (like Vandermeer, I guess ;)). It’s more of a mood novel than anything else; a slow, elaborate analysis of various fears and obsessions, reexamining motifs Whiteley seems particularly interested in: boundaries of self, identity, and body, evolution and conquest, the dilemmas of nature and nurture.
Skyward Inn is an imaginative, slow-paced and increasingly creepy trip down the rabbit hole of alienness in all the various meanings of the word – a first contact story in which “contact” becomes much more important than “first.”
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Rebellion through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.