(“A book with bad reviews” from the Reading Challenge)
[Technically, this book has more good reviews than bad on Goodreads, but the list doesn’t specify “only” bad reviews, so I’m going to go with a couple of bad reviews + I didn’t care for it = good enough to meet this particular criterion.]
[Some spoilers under the cut.]
I wanted to like this book. It was one of my “picked it up randomly whilst browsing at the library” books, and the blurb made it sound interesting. The world that the author creates is very interesting, with a society that has spent centuries recovering from an ancient cataclysm currently on the cusp of a technological revolution.
So, I wanted to like this book…but I really didn’t. I made myself finish it because I’m usually too stubborn not to finish books even when I’m not enjoying them, but I did have to push myself through much of the second half. The writing itself was perfectly good, but I could not bring myself to care about any of the main characters at all. They are neither likable nor admirable. I don’t need a character to be both admirable and likable in order to care about them and find them sympathetic, but I do generally need them to be at least one of those things. Since the characters of Unwrapped Sky didn’t fall into either of those categories, I found myself not caring about what happened to them, and having little sympathy for either their choices or their bad circumstances.
Much of this stems from the fact that the philosophical basis for the events of the story was clearly Marxism, a philosophy with which I (to put it mildly) strongly disagree. (As an aside, I have no idea if the author himself actually agrees with Marxism, or if he just found it an interesting basis from which to write this particular story.) The society of Caeli-Amur is divided into various classes: the heavily bureaucratic ruling Houses, the workers, the slaves, the students, etc. The struggles of these classes form the main conflict of the story.
The working classes, working in terrible conditions under the auspices of the Houses, are beginning to strike and agitate for reform and improvements. The Houses, looking down on those of the other classes as not worth any time or effort, are most concerned with things continuing to function “as normal.” Driving much of this conflict is the fact that the recently-developed technologies are partially built/fueled by magical processes which slowly cause very Lovecraftian physical and mental distortions in those who use them, especially when certain magical safety procedures are not followed. The workers, reasonably requesting to be taught those safety procedures, are rebuffed by the Houses, which don’t have any care for the fates of individual workers. Elsewhere in the city, a hidden group of revolutionaries/seditionists plot to initiate change towards a system where everyone will be equal and have an equal say in how society functions. They stand very much apart from the people they claim to champion, and have their own internal philosophical disagreements, but tend towards an “end justifies the means” mentality which becomes more violent and ruthless as the story goes on.
It was, I think, relevant to my dislike of the story that philosophy was mentioned frequently and explicitly throughout the book, but most frequently in the context of those who stand apart from “everyday” life in some way. There is a group of “philosopher-assassins,” who apparently sit around debating different philosophies of life (several of which are also clearly drawn from real-world analogs) in cafes when they aren’t out on assignments killing people. The seditionists, hidden away in their caves, debate different permutations of Hegelian/Marxist-flavored philosophy as they move towards violent revolution against the Houses as the answer to society’s ills. I have no memory of philosophy being shown as a something that provides a guide for regular people, living their everyday lives – which is what I believe philosophy is and should be.
I will say that, both as a representation of Marx’s idea of class conflict and what actually tends to happen in Marxism-driven revolutions, the story seems like a fairly accurate one. The book is the first of a planned series, so several major plot-threads are left unresolved at the end. Personally, I don’t know if I will want to read more, and I cannot (from a personal perspective) recommend the book. It was well-written from a technical standpoint, and the world is definitely an interesting one, which is the only thing that might pull me back to read the sequel. When main characters that I cannot bring myself to care about spend the whole story in varying degrees of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lives, with no particular end in sight, I have little inducement to read further. Other people might feel less strongly about the philosophical issues and character likability than I do, so for some people it might be worth checking out.