I have been waiting with anticipation for the follow-up to Rjurik Davidson’s strikingly original debut, Unwrapped Sky (2014), and The Stars Askew does not disappoint. The “young master of the New Weird” fleshes out his wonderfully bizarre world, a world that blends familiar elements of history and mythology in unique ways.
The sequel picks up a number of complicated plotlines from the original with little to jog the reader’s memory. I recommend re-reading Unwrapped Sky (or at least my review of it) before tackling The Stars Askew. In the wake of the events of Unwrapped Sky (spoiler alert for the first novel, but not the sequel under review), the seditionists of Caeli-Amur have overthrown the tyrannical Houses. But new tyrannies from within and without threaten the citizens’ hard-fought freedom.
I saw parallels to Paris in 1789 in Unwrapped Sky, and those parallels are made explicit here. Two factions divide the seditionists—the moderates and the vigilants—and the vigilants are winning. Caeli-Amur is on the verge of a Reign of Terror, with the vigilant Ejan playing the role of Robespierre. For those accused of crimes ranging from hoarding food to treason, the mob of hungry citizens demands justice. Caeli-Amur’s version of the guillotine is the Bolt, which provides a quick and brutal end to those convicted by the Criminal Tribunal.
Two protagonists return from Unwrapped Sky. Kata was a philosopher-assassin hired to infiltrate the seditionists before she joined their cause. She is now aligned with the moderate faction. Despite her obvious leadership abilities, she keeps a low profile, knowing that evidence of her earlier work on behalf of the Houses is now in vigilant hands. Any questions about her commitment to the cause will bring her before the Bolt. But when a moderate leader dies under suspicious circumstances, Kata cannot help but try to unravel the mystery.
It had been Maximilian, the charismatic thaumaturgist, who had persuaded Kata to join the seditionists. In Unwrapped Sky’s climax, Max struck a bargain with the trickster god Aya. In exchange for mastery of thaumaturgy, Max shared his body with Aya. But it quickly becomes clear that neither man nor god is interested in sharing. The two struggle for control while Max searches for some means of expelling his omnipotent guest.
A minor character from the first book gets promoted to the third protagonist slot here. Armand is a former House Officiate who seeks to restore the Houses to dominance, with himself of course at the top. He holds a powerful artifact, the Prism of Alerion, but he still needs an army. So he travels to the neighboring city of Varenis, whose leaders plan to invade Caeli-Amur and crush the seditionists before its own subjects get any ideas. When Armand fails to master to the intrigues of Varenis politics, he winds up in Camp X, a slave-labor camp that resembles a Nazi concentration camp or Stalin’s Gulag.
One interesting element of The Stars Askew is the fact that three protagonists each operate almost entirely independently of one another. Their ultimate goals all concern the fate of Caeli-Amur, but they all find more pressing personal challenges they must first overcome. But the book’s exciting conclusion brings the three together (at least in a sense), setting up the climactic struggle sure to come in the third book. I can hardly wait.