When I picked up Skythane, I thought it was a gay romance set in a science fiction world. But while there’s a “destined mates” thread throughout the story, I found the book more like a science fiction car (or hovercycle) chase with guns blazing. The characters must act fast or lose the chance so have to comb through the pieces later. The real story comes out in dribs and drabs. I had as much guesswork as facts through much of it despite one of the three point-of-view characters knowing what’s going on. That said, the way Quince spoke and thought of the mission, including through memory dreams, didn’t bother me. She never hid information. More it was so huge, and painful, she couldn’t dwell on it. And she needed to bring Xander and Jameson along slowly or they’d have her committed, or whatever the equivalent on Oberon.
This is a rich book with a lot to offer. The universe is vast with humanity spread out on far-flung colonies. Oberon has the additional complexity of remnants of an ancient, non-human society with technology far advanced of humanity. Then there are two different waves of human colonization: the skythane, who genetically adapted to the planet by growing wings, and the more recent landers, who detest the winged ones. Even looking past the multiple cultures, including corporate overreach, there’s the strange geology that plays a vital part in the story.
Their mission is at the junction of forgotten history and folklore rooted in the ancient beings. Xander, a product of the underside of Oberon, and Jameson, a trained psych raised on a rigid, Christian colony, find this hard to accept. Quince has her hands (and wings) full trying to keep both her charges alive as she brings them to where they’re willing to consider the role they must play. All this while the world around them shudders to pieces.
That’s the adventure part. The romance starts when Xander and Jameson meet and are drawn to each other against their wills. Jameson resembles Xander’s long-lost lover while Jameson has been raised to the man-and-woman standard of relationships, burying his attraction to men deep enough even he isn’t sure it’s there. He’s an excellent example of how indoctrination can make people ignore parts of themselves just to conform to what they’re told. Despite the draw, Xander finds Jameson uptight and ignorant of the darker side of life while Xander’s brash arrogance provokes little more than annoyance in Jameson.
As a reader, I found Quince easiest to identify with because she had a worthy goal, but Jameson’s culture clash also caught me. Xander took longer to grow on me for much the same reasons that repelled Jameson, but part of what makes Skythane so appealing is how all three characters develop and change not just in their own actions but also how they see each other. It’s fascinating to see their upbringing and expectations stripped away as they discover more about what’s going on and the company they now keep.
The well-developed world building made the fantastical parts seem integral while the description also balanced out the wilder elements with simple, mundane actions. For example, when they forgot they’ve lost access to something. The characters don’t think about it but rather they try to use the tech multiple times as they always have before, only to remember when it’s not there. The strong description has a lot to do with making the reader part of the story rather than separate from it. Whether describing Xander’s attractiveness while rejecting it in Jameson’s point of view, or showing the extent of distances crossed when the characters notice a consistency in the terrain, it’s possible to see through their eyes.
This isn’t always a strength, though. There are places where the description or thoughts become repetitious, where later thoughts mirror earlier ones or the same place is described through multiple viewpoints. Still, it’s more a minor hiccup in an absorbing story, especially when compared to the successful description.
There are a couple of barely open-door, gay sex scenes and a number of tragic stories told (or shown in the memory dreams) as they venture to carry out a plan set in motion twenty-five years earlier. It’s not all life and death adrenaline rush. The reader comes to understand the mission, and what suffering lies beneath it. The guesses I made based on hints in the story were largely accurate, but I enjoyed seeing the story unfold even when I’d misread the clues.
This story offers much to enjoy, and despite being the first of a series, Skythane has a solid ending. But don’t despair. The epilogue opens up a new set of crises to address for those not ready to walk away from this fascinating world just yet.