Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms) by Brandon Mull

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

One thing I must say about Brandon Mull: he is an outstanding world builder, with an amazingly fertile imagination. Whether it is Fablehaven, with its wildlife preserve for fairy creatures, or The Candy Shop War with the wizards that live among us and control children using treats, Mull creates universes with internally consistent rules, delightful devices, and endless possibilities for adventure. 

Sky Raiders is the first in the Five Kingdoms series, and was clearly conceived from the outset to be one in a longer story arc. His first book, Fablehaven, is self contained, understandable since he needed a successful book before trying to sell a longer series. Eight years and over a dozen books later, the Five Kingdoms series appears to have been planned that way.

As with Mull’s other books, the best features of this book are the abundant imagination that went into the world of the book, and the skillful storytelling. Mull’s plots tend to be well paced, alternating action with description so that neither dominates the other. On the one hand, the descriptions never go on for so long that they get tiresome - if anything, I always want a little more detail than he gives. On the other, the action and adventure always complement, rather than overpower, the setting. I never felt that Mull was writing with the inevitable blockbuster movie in mind.

The weakness of Mull’s writing, if you wish to be picky, is in his characterization. Not that his characters are poorly written, exactly, but that they tend to be a stand-in for the reader more than the focus of the story. This is in contrast to writers like, say, Terry Pratchett or Richard Peck, for whom the characters are usually the primary concern. But this isn’t necessarily a knock on Mull. The books he writes are not intended to be deep in that way: they are straight up adventure stories, not literary novels. That said, they aren’t just shallow fluff either. The ethical dilemmas are less complex, but they are there, and Mull doesn’t gloss over tough issues. They just aren’t the focus.

The plot in Sky Raiders is set in motion when Cole and some friends visit a haunted house attraction in their city, and are unexpectedly kidnapped and taken to some place outside of, well, the known universe. Scratch that. Cole’s friends are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and he follows them to try to rescue them. Things go wrong, and he too is enslaved.

I like the way that Mull writes about capture and enslavement. Without being preachy at all, he lays out in a straightforward manner the horror of being kidnapped and sold. He doesn’t have to make the explicit connection, but I would suspect the average kid reading this book would be able to empathize with those taken in the slave trade in Africa. Kudos to Mull for not sugar coating the violence in these scenes.

Before the slave train can reach the market, though, Cole is sold to the Sky Raiders. This is where the book veers from realistic SciFi into true fantasy. Let me give a brief explanation of this part of the book’s world.

At the edge of this world (which seems flat) is a literal edge: “The Brink,” as the residents call it. This sheer and seemingly infinite cliff overlooks an equally infinite space. On each side, extending as far as can be seen (but not infinitely), is a wall of clouds. No one who has entered the cloud walls has ever returned. From the eastern wall comes a succession of floating castles that traverse the sky to the other wall, where they disappear. The Sky Raiders are one of several “salvage” companies which travel out to the castles and take whatever they can get for use and resale. These castles are occasionally benign, and the Raiders can take what they want without interference. However, many more are fraught with danger.

At this point, I should probably explain some of the underlying reality that Mull builds. The magic (or technology, which is largely the same thing…) is “shaping.” In the section of this world that Cole goes to, Shaping is used to create things. Objects and other non-living things are called “renderings,” while quasi-living objects are called “semblances.” It is these quasi-living objects that are the most interesting. One might perhaps compare them to androids, as they are created to act as though they are living, without actually being fully sentient. Some are extremely simple, and can only repeat a few lines, while others are rather difficult to tell apart from truly living creatures. In fact, one of the more interesting questions raised by this book is when the line is crossed between semblance and existence, between programming and sentience, between life and non-life.

An outstanding scene in the book occurs when Cole, scouting out a new castle, finds a semblance who is basically a Roman centurion. Through a combination of conversation and a magic object whose purpose Cole discovers accidentally, the semblance becomes self aware. Has he crossed the line to personhood? He is clearly not fully human, as he cannot leave the castle without disintegrating, and he still is mostly a slave to his nature - that is, his programing. But he is now capable of a limited degree of free will, and rational thought, which is more than a semblance can ordinarily do.

It is also in this scene that Mull gets at a rather profound truth about the human existence. We humans are a lot like the semblances on the castles. We do not remember how we came to exist (anyone remember being born?), and we float along for a brief few days before we disappear. For those of us who have a belief in a higher power an afterlife (Mull is a Mormon), the metaphor is perhaps even more interesting. Who makes the castles? Nobody knows for sure, and certainly nobody can see them being built. (Except one person, maybe…) Why do they even exist at all? What happens to them when they disappear into the other cloud wall? It is one thing to stand on the outside as Cole and the other truly living beings do, and quite another for the semblances like the centurion, who knows only the castle and the “memories” that were programed into him. We exist for such a small period of time, and the beginning and the end are mysteries still.

It would have been fun to have spent more time in the book among the castles. I suspect Mull envisioned these almost as levels in a video game. Get in, defeat the big boss, get out with treasure. (Mull is roughly my age, and I can see a lot of our common culture in the writing…) But, all good things come to an end, and Cole finds he has a lot more to worry about than getting back to his friends and rescuing them. There is a great political crisis in this world, with hidden identities, and evil king, and great power run amok. Cole and the friends he makes have their work cut out for them, and this book ends long before a true resolution to the overarching problems is found. The conclusion is presumably several books away.

Anyway, this is yet another interesting and entertaining book by Mull. He is good at what he does, and seems to have an endless imagination for new worlds and the wonder of a child even in his middle age.

My kids are fans of all the Brandon Mull books we have listened to together so far. My sons are particular fans of Fablehaven, and have read some of the sequel books. I would add that they are particularly well suited to the use we make of them, which is getting us through long trips in the car. The pacing helps the driver stay awake and alert.

This audiobook was read by Keith Nobbs. I forgot to note who read the other Mull audiobooks we listened to. Nobbs does a competent job - in fact, you don’t notice him much, which is a complement. So far, all three Mull audiobooks seem to have good production values and reading styles.

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