Rebel Skies by Ann Sei Lin

The Blurb On The Back:

Welcome to a world of sky ships, flying cities and powerful paper sprites …

When servant girl Kurara’s trick of making paper come to life turns out to be a power treasured across the empire, she escapes her old life to become a Crafter on board a skyship.  There she learns to hunt wild paper spirits called shikigami – and a whole new world begins to unfold. 

REBEL SKIES was released in the United Kingdom on 5th May 2022.  Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

You can order REBEL SKIES by Ann Sei Lin from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Kurara and her brother Haru live on The Midori (a hovering sky castle filled with private residences and banqueting halls where the Empire of Mikoshima’s soldiers come to relax from the war in Estia).  The pair have been servants for as long as Kurara can remember although she still has strange dreams of their previous life in a village.  

Kurara is a Crafter (someone who can make paper come to life and do whatever she wants it to do) but at Haru’s urging, has been keeping it a secret from the other servants.  Crafters are sought after by the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Tsukimi, who has an extensive library about Crafters and about shikigami (large paper monsters who cannot be controlled by Crafters and who are hunted by airship crews for their cores).  She’s even rumoured to keep shikigami chained up beneath the palace so she can experiment on them.

When a rogue shikigami attacks The Midori, Kurara is saved by a Crafter called Himura but in the process learns a devastating secret about Haru.  Himura wants Kurara to work with him on The Orihime (a hunting ship that earns a bounty from the Empire for the cores of rogue shikigami that they’re destroyed) and promises to teach her how to better use her Crafting abilities to impress Princess Tsukimi and save Haru.  The more Kurara learns of the shikigami, the more uncomfortable she is with the idea of assisting in their destruction.  But with more and more shikigami threatening the skyships and floating cities, Kurara knows that she doesn’t have much choice if she’s to save her brother …

Ann Sei Lin’s debut YA fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy) makes the most out of its very original concept (inspired by Japanese history and culture) and unfurls at a breakneck pace that keeps the action coming thick and fast.  However, this is one of those rare books that I wished had at times slowed down to explore and explain some of the core ideas and allow the character relationships to breathe and develop more naturally than they do.

Lin packs some fantastic ideas into this book.  I’m always a sucker for fantasy worlds inspired by Japanese culture and this had the bonus of carrying a bit of a steampunk vibe through the use of flying ships and floating cities (although I should say that no coal or petrochemicals are deployed to keep these going).  It’s the shikigami that really sets the book apart from a lot of YA on the market at the moment – the idea of giant creatures made of paper and capable of terrible destruction caught my imagination and she does a fabulous job of bringing them to life that made me think of origami Godzillas.  

I particularly enjoyed the difference she draws between insane shikigami and those like Himura’s shikigami fox, Akane, who have sentience but are bonded to serve their masters.  It’s when Lin takes the time to draw these elements out that the book really comes to life and, for me, the biggest disappointment is that these kinds of explanations don’t happen a lot in the book because Lin is so keen on taking the action forward.  For example, it took a considerable number of pages before Lin explains how Crafters are able to magically reinforce the paper they use so that it can be super strong and durable (although always vulnerable to fire) and I wished that had been put earlier on because every time there was a scene with a shikigami I wondered how it was able to do what it was doing without bending or collapsing.

The plot points fall like dominos at a breakneck pace with Lin racing from one scene to the next.  I am very much a plot freak so I do enjoy books that cram in a lot of story, and Lin certainly does so here by running a parallel storyline about a man called Kazeno Rei, who is plotting to kill Princess Tsukami on behalf of her brother, Prince Ugetsu, in order to secure independence for the sky dwellers.  The way Lin runs this alongside Kurara’s storyline works very well, especially due to the way that Lin draws them together in the final quarter (albeit that one of the connections was signalled far too heavily in advance).

However, plot does come at the expense of characterisation at times.  Kurara in particular is a little inconsistent, at times concerned about standing out but then mouthing off at authority figures when a scene needs additional conflict.  I wanted more of her relationship with Haru than what we’re given – although the way the book ends suggests that this is likely to develop further in the sequel and I also wished that there had been more scenes between her and Himura given his interest in Crafters and the power they used to wield in the Empire and the secret that’s revealed in the final third of the book.  Indeed, Himura has the more interesting character arc as Lin draws out how interest can become obsession but while he’s involved in a devastating scene towards the end, Lin skips over whether he has any emotional reaction to it, which I think was a shame.

There are two key side characters who are clearly going to play a bigger role in book 2 but who have a solid introduction here.  Tomoe and Sayo are crew members on The Orihime – Tomoe an extrovert engineer who is keeping secrets of her own and Sayo the more intense navigator whose hot temper gets her into trouble.  Lin alludes to a romance developing between the two (or at least, Sayo having a crush on the flirty Tomoe) and I’d be interested to see how this develops going forward.

All in all, my criticisms aside this is a strong debut YA novel and there’s plenty of potential here to make me very keen to read book 2.  This is definitely a book to check out if you are looking for something a bit different to add to your YA fantasy stack and Lin is an author to watch.  

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