Book review: Skyward Inn

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley
My rating: five stars

At a loose end, I figured it was time to read another of novelist/mycologist Aliya Whiteley’s books. I’ve previously read The Beauty and found myself attracted and repulsed by the mysterious tone and sometimes unexplained goings-on.

Happily, I can say that the author’s Skyward Inn provided another dose of much-needed oddity in a small package, albeit one that addresses some big ideas. This is probably not all that unusual – this is science fiction, after all – but it feels distinctly human in its scope, even as there’s world-changing events afoot.

Set in a luddite-like area of the Western Protectorate – part of Devon which has cut itself off from technological advance in the hope of staying Out Of Things – the Skyward Inn is a place that sells alien grog to those pursuing a simpler, farming life. The Inn, run by Jem and Isley, serves a drink known as jarrowbrew. The drink is native to Qita, a planet that surrendered to Earth’s explorations, and Isley is a migrant from that place. He’s viewed as an acceptable outsider – as long as the jarrowbrew flows.

An unexpected visitor arrives at the Inn, and Isley and Jem are confronted with the weight of their pasts, both individual and collective. It’s difficult to give too much away without, well, giving the whole thing away, but let’s just say that responsibility and the shadow cast by past actions become a focus.

The story pokes heavily into the way loneliness can grow, changing family relationships until it becomes something akin to an intergenerational cancer. It’s got a lot of time for rumination on how we grow up – and whether we actually grow up at all. The relationship between Jem and her estranged son, Fosse, is very finely drawn, as is the cat’s cradle of the community. There’s definitely an examination of the concept of being together alone – of the bonds that can link individuals yet provide no immediate comfort. It’s an element of the book which brings things down to the human level, in contrast to the bigger ideas – war, travel, colonisation, death and fate – which populate the rest of the work.

Skyward Inn seems like the sort of thing that’ll be heralded as a classic, sooner or later. There’s nothing in the text that gets in the way of the story, something I often find with SF novels, keen to wave their world-building wang in the reader’s face. Here, instead, there’s a world that just works together. The science isn’t improbable, nor is it explained to within an inch of its life: but the alien world built is just as solid and real as the villagers’ circumscribed lives. I hadn’t expected the story to go the way it did, but in retrospect it all seemed so… inexorably right.

I know it’s probably the flush of having read something that seemed really great, but I’m looking forward to rereading this. There’s a lot more to think about than just the nuts and bolts of the narrative, and I plan to ponder.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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