As I read Rjurik Davidson’s imaginative debut novel, Unwrapped Sky, I struggled with how to classify it. There are elements of classical mythology, including minotaurs, the Furies, tritons, sirens and an Atlantis-like sunken utopia. The book has the dark undertone of sword-and-sorcery (minus the sword), where magic leaves its mark on the “thaumaturgists” who meddle with unnatural powers. Despite the presence of magic, though, we also see bizarrely-advanced technology in the steampunk vein.
If the city of Caeli-Amur existed in Earth, it would have to be placed in Europe in 1789, 1848 or 1918. The work clearly draws inspiration from the likes of Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. The publicist’s letter accompanying my review copy called Davidson “a young master of the New Weird,” which is as appropriate a genre as any for this original work.
Perhaps the most universal theme of fantasy literature (as well as the real-world mythologies and religions that inspired it) is that of a Golden Age that has come and gone. This idea runs through Unwrapped Sky, where the gods are gone, key secrets of both thaumaturgy and science have been lost, and the citizen Forum long ago disbanded.
Three plutocratic and merciless Houses now rule Caeli-Amur. The source of their power is their control over the thaumaturgists, as well as their connection to the Elo-Talern, decadent immortals who dwell simultaneously in two universes. The only check on that power is the other Houses. In the wake of the House War (fought mainly through the use of “philosopher-assassins”), the only thing the Houses can agree upon is the need to suppress the seditionists who plot a more democratic future.
Three point of view characters guide us through this world. Kata is a philosopher-assassin afflicted with the same epilepsy-like condition that killed her mother. When the novel begins, she has been hired to kill a minotaur, a sacrilegious act which causes her to rethink her profession. Later, House Technis pays her to infiltrate the seditionists, but she finds herself increasingly persuaded by their ideas, particularly when espoused by the charismatic Maximilian.
Maximilian is idealistic and ambitious. He challenges the cautious approach taken by the old guard of the seditionist movement and aggressively recruits new supporters to the cause. He has a two-prong strategy for overthrowing the Houses. The first is to start a popular uprising, which he hopes to achieve by supporting strikes by oppressed workers and demonstrations by frustrated citizens. The second is to master thaumaturgy so he can fend off the Houses’ brutal response to any collective action. The fundamental question for Max is whether he is working toward the common good or his own glory.
The third major character is Boris Autec. Boris rises from lowly tramworker to become Director of House Technis. Grief over his long-dead wife and the pain caused by his estranged daughter keep him from truly enjoying the fruits of his hard work. He is addicted to “hot-wine,” which grants superhuman strength, and infatuated with an enslaved siren. Boris sympathizes with the plight of his former working class comrades and plans to enact modest reforms—after he has destroyed the seditionists.
This is a captivating world, but Davidson leaves too much of it unexplained. For example, I loved the idea of philosopher-assassins, but never learned why these two disparate occupations are united here. Perhaps this is a critique of the Sophists of ancient Athens (or their modern descendants, lawyers) who were mercenary in their application of philosophical reasoning. I can only grasp at a real-world explanation because the novel doesn’t offer an in-world one.
Similarly, there is a myth about a rebellious god that plays a key role in the plot. We get a few little snippets of this legend, but no real sense of the religious views of the people of Caeli-Amur. Given the Marxist undertones, I wanted to know how religion fit into the power structure. Dothe seditionists consider religion the hot-wine of the masses or do they embrace a liberation theology?
Along the same lines, the novel concludes with an open question about how the neighboring city-state of Varenis will respond to the events in Cali-Amur. Now I don’t object to uncertainty, but for a cliffhanger to work, I need to understand what the possibilities are. I have some idea about the nature of the relationship between the two cities, but Varenis barely features in the novel, so I can’t conduct the kind of thought experiments a good cliffhanger encourages.
These criticisms aside, Unwrapped Sky is an original story that sets 19th century political struggles in a fascinating fantasy world. Davidson’s characters are flawed and compelling. This is an ambitious debut from a very promising writer.