Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

The Blurb On The Back:

This is a place we can be alone, together.

Drink down the brew and dream of a better Earth.

Skyward Inn, within the high walls of the Western Protectorate, is a place of safety, where people come together to tell stories of the time before the war with Qita.

But safety from what?  Qita surrendered without complaint when Earth invaded; Inkeepers em and Isley, veterans from either side, have regrets but few scars.

Their peace is disturbed when a visitor known to Isley comes to the Inn asking for help, bringing reminders of an unnerving past and triggering an uncertain future.

Did humanity really win the war? 

You can buy SKYWARD INN by Aliya Whiteley from Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

In the future an interstellar gate opens near Earth, and humanity discovers the planet of Qita, which is rich in natural resources.  While building an army, they send messengers like Jemima ‘Jem’ Davey to wander the planet, posting messages promising peace and mutual prosperity even though both sides know that war is inevitable.  But then there’s a miracle: the Qitans surrender before a shot is even fired and humanity and Qitans come to an accommodation.

It’s now over a decade later.  

Jem has left the military and returned to the Western Protectorate (modern day Devon) in the United Kingdom and now runs a pub called The Skyward Inn with Isley, a Qitan who she fell in love with during her mission on Qita but who has made clear that a physical relationship between them is impossible.  Although there is suspicion on Earth against Qitans, which leads to attacks, the locals have largely taken to Isley thanks in part to his supplying them with Jarrowbrew, a drink that makes it easy for them to dream of better things.

The Protectorate has eschewed technology for a simpler life with self-reliance.  Jem’s brother, Dom, is on the Council and takes great pride in his role of leading the community and negotiating with the neighbouring governments.  He is also the guardian of Jem’s 15-year-old son, Fosse, who she abandoned when she joined the military.  This has created a tense relationship between the two, not helped by the fact that he also vaguely disapproves of the Inn and never drinks Jarrowbrew himself.  Jem keeps trying to improve her relationship with Fosse, but he’s not particularly receptive and finds her irritating as he’s too busy trying to work out what he wants and how to be a man.

Life for Jem has a settled rhythm though, until one day Isley reveals that he’s harbouring another Qitan called Wan who has illegally breached the Protectorate’s border in a specially constructed space suit that’s broken and needs a new part.  Jealous of the connection between Isley and Wan and keen to be rid of her, Jem goes to Dom for help but doing so awakens memories of the past and Earth’s military campaign just as word reaches the Protectorate of a mysterious illness taking hold on Earth and Fosse discovers that three people have taken over a farm in the Protectorate and are keen to keep their presence a secret …

Aliya Whiteley’s SF novel is a quiet, contemplative affair about loneliness, independence and the desire for connection.  It’s tightly written with interesting ideas and Cronenberg-style imagery but the characterisation is too sparse and I needed more from the relationships, notably Jem and Isley as a key revelation should have made Jem reevaluate it.  That said, this is a thought-provoking book and I’d definitely check out Whiteley’s next novel.

This isn’t a SF novel for those who like lots of action, space ships and world building.  It’s a quieter, character-driven piece where there’s actually very little mention of technology at all given that so much of the action takes place in a location where people have deliberately turned their backs on it.  That said, I liked how Whiteley does incorporate the SF elements such as Coach (a chip implant that serves as a combined entertainment, translation and information service).

The novel is split between Jem’s first person account of her life in the Inn with Isley and her experiences in the military and Fosse’s third person coming-of-age story.  The focus is very much on the character of each – Jem’s desperate longing for Isley and regrets at her estrangement with Fosse; Fosse’s coming of age story and his desire to be a man while coming to terms with what’s happening to his body.  Both mother and son are faced with interlopers who change their live forever – Jem meets Won, the Qitan being hidden in the Inn by Isley and Fosse with Cee, Victoria and Annie who are squatting on an abandoned farm that he likes to hang out in.  

I’m one of those readers who likes a lot of plot and action so this focus on character and introspection was a change of pace for me and not something that’s normally my bag.  That said, there were things that I enjoyed, e.g. Fosse’s struggle with violent impulses and his later feelings of guilt and Jem’s jealousy of Wan and the tension between her and Dom with Whiteley making some astute observations about how the siblings know which buttons to press in order to hurt each other.  

However, for me this is one of those books where I would have welcomed more information, development and more “telling” when it comes to characters and development.  This is particularly the case with Isley and Jem’s relationship as I have to say that I’m never really sure what Jem sees in him or why she is so in love with him given the lack of any meaningful discussion between them and certainly towards the end of the book when we discover why Isley never wanted a physical relationship with her, I wanted to see some kind of re-evaluation by Jem of what that meant for their relationship and how she felt about him, especially given what she decides at the end.  It could well be that the idea is that she’s not so much in love with him as with what she has projected onto him but that itself needed to have more development for me to fully buy into it.  Similarly there’s a scene where Jem and Fosse are talking about his father and the circumstances that led Jem to abandon him and Whiteley basically puts it down in bullet points.  Again, it may be the deliberately intention in order to strip it all of emotion but for me that made it difficult to relate to and it was something where I really needed some kind of drama or feeling of significance and as such it left me cold and I found it difficult to connect with.

Connection and belonging and independence and loneliness are all important themes throughout the book but the emotional distance between the characters means I’m not sure they’re as fully explored as they could be.  There is some vivid and disturbing imagery towards the end of the book as Whiteley makes her key revelations and there’s one scene in particular that carries a real David Cronenberg punch.  However there are equally some plot elements that go undeveloped, e.g. Wan’s reason for visiting Earth and I wasn’t quite sure how a time jump element worked to allow Jem to see what happens to Fosse (I think it has to do with the revelation about Qitan society and how that actually functions but I would have liked just a sentence to make that clearer).

All this said, while this book wasn’t completely my cup of tea there was certainly enough here that I would want to check out Whiteley’s next book.  

SKYWARD INN will be released in the United Kingdom on 18th March 2021.  Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.

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