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'Cloudbound' Is Stunning, But Doesn't Quite Soar

From the ground, flying is a wonderfully loose metaphor — for freedom and speed and ambition, for superhuman ease and laborless achievement. But Fran Wilde's Bone Universe series makes flying a fatal and real technical science. It isn't magic, but a controlled harnessing of something terrifyingly strong: the wind. The taut violence of flight — catching gusts, snapping wings, shaving the air — is the best and most real part of the novels. Not a broomstick whoosh or the effortless flutter of a superhero's cape, but groaning joints, deadly winds, an awful void below.

Cloudbound and its predecessor Updraft sketch — with intricate, architectural lines — a city made of living bone towers above the clouds. The bones grow, tier by tier, and the people move upwards with them into the sky. Mechanical wings and bridges made out of monster sinew allow them to travel between towers. What lies below the clouds? How did the towers rise? What do the bones below connect to? Cloudbound dips below the clouds for answers.

In Updraft, the narrator, Kirit, brought down the city's leaders, the Singers, who echoed like bats when they flew and ruled from a closed and sinister Spire at the center of the city. The Spire was cracked and emptied, and power returned to the towers ringing it. But the revolution is the easy part; it's the rebuilding that's hard. In Updraft, Kirit punched through the fabric of their winged society. In Cloudbound, we see the tatters. Factions, infighting, and hatred of the old oppressors allow a brutal new power to rise.

Cloudbound is stunning for the skyscape with its colored clouds, the whipping of wind, the viscerality of fighting in flight: "I rolled, letting her streak past as I slashed out with my knife hand. My blade nicked a black silk wing, and I heard a satisfying rip. I didn't look to see where she tumbled. Fighting to regain my slight angle, I almost overshot the tower. Instead of circling again, I tucked my wings and spilled air, dropping fast. Only at the last minute did I extend the spans to slow my fall, landing hard on the balcony."

Cloudbound and Updraft are world building in the most exact sense — the towers, bridges, wings, all have a genuine mechanical creak to them. Updraft, however, soars in a way Cloudbound doesn't. This is partly because revolutions are glamorous, and rebuilding is not. But it is mostly because Wilde made the mistake of switching narrators from sharp, bright, warm Kirit to flat Nat. Nat is Kirit's "wing-brother," one of her oldest friends; he has family and lovers of his own, but the work of shading his feelings and desires is left undone. As a result, the complex emotional ties of Updraft — family bonds, tower bonds, the thousand complicated loves and resentments of people living in proximity — are missing.

For a novel with little human warmth, Cloudbound is still spectacular in the ambition and creativity of its architecture. Fran Wilde has built a magnificent house — it's just a shame that no one's home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.