Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn (2021)

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Title: Skyward Inn

Format: E-book

Pages: 304

Series: –

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.” 

Score: 7/10

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Rebellion through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

32 thoughts on “Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn (2021)

  1. Sounds like something M John Harrison might write, perhaps. A first contact situation as a pretext for explorations of mood? I didn’t find any mention of obvious and overused tropes in your review so that sounds good.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No, it’s not tropey at all. I’d like more people to read it, actually, so that I could discuss it without fear of spoilers 😉 The ending while not bad just doesn’t sit well with me and I wonder if it’s me and my worldview that clashes with Whiteley’s vision or if it’s something designed this way by the author, to be controversial.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. She writes weird and light body horror. I’m afraid I’ll spoil it for you if I say too much, but let me just put it this way: it’s an intriguing take on a hive mind and what conquest means 😉 I think she is trying to discuss the idea of individuality and intrinsic loneliness, of what togetherness requires from people and whether being a part of a greater whole is what people really want. Her answer is different than mine but still fun to read.
          It is well written, but ultimately just a tad depressing 😉 certainly makes you think 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

        1. My first guess was/is that I wouldn´t enjoy it indeed. Yet I´m intruiged. Now your mention of Fiasco doesn´t really clear things up. From your review I gathered this to be more amood novel than an idea one? My problems with Fiasco were not ideas leading it, but bad ideas leading it and/or unbelievable execution, so to say.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. It’s a mood novel, definitely. But at the same time Whiteley has a certain idea of where she wants to get and her way of going there does not feel entirely natural nor believable to me; the logical holes in the plot are glaring. But if you let yourself be driven by its mood, the mood is consistent.

            Not sure if this helps but I’d rather not spoil the plot in case (remote, I know) you’d still want to read it. It does remind me of Fiasco a lot, actually, in what it says about humanity 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  2. My first instinct was to wonder if Skyward Inn is in any way meant to echo the building in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn though tha is of course sited in Cornwall not Devon. I only have the faintest Inklings of the classic novel, having never read it, but bits of the details you give of Whiteley’s novel are very reminiscent of its predecessor. More than that I can’t comment on, I’m afraid!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Nice catch! I haven’t read Jamaica Inn either, but I seem to remember Whiteley mentioning it in interviews. This book is definitely mood, emotion, and atmosphere over logical plot as Ola states. I enjoyed the growing strangeness of it and the big surprise, which I didn’t see coming. Although I’m not the “deepest” reader and tend to miss signs and hints in stories.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I’m not a fan of Vandermeer as you rightly surmised 🤣
      Thanks, Lashaan! 😀
      Haven’t read Sagan’s Contact, just watched the movie with Jodie Foster… Have you read it?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Paul Connelly

    This felt like a Twilight Zone type of story updated to reflect 21st century sensibilities, in some regards like Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, although the thematic concerns of the two books don’t overlap very much. But Tidbeck’s novel was more concise, where this one felt a bit too padded with unnecessary detail to me, even given its emphasis on mood.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I haven’t heard of Tidbeck before – I’ll take a look, thanks for the rec!
      Yep, I agree – it had a Twilight Zone vibe, that kind of suffocating nightmarish feel 😉 And it could have been shorter, too. But everyone seems to have a bit different reaction to it – I could be happier without Fosse chapters, whereas many people felt this was the best part of the book 😉

      Thanks for stopping by!


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