To suggest that this is far from your run of the mill fantasy novel is a vast understatement. The only real comparison within the genre that I could conjure up is to Max Gladstone, because there's a timelessness here, our story woven into a particular present but with much awareness not only of the historic past but what fragments remain from before that. However, better comparisons are to authors outside the genre, because this feels more like a classic French or Russian novel, merging history and philosophy under the veins of the story at hand.
'The Stars Askew' is the second book in Davidson's 'Caeli-Amur' series, after 'Unwrapped Sky', of which I was unaware while reading this. I'd pulled it off my to-review shelf in the dark and saw no indicator on the cover, the flap or the early pages to suggest that this wasn't a standalone novel. Only as I progressed did I realise that either Davidson was throwing us into the deep end of a startlingly realised world or he'd written another volume before this. The good news here is that it works well as a standalone novel.
From what I can tell, 'Unwrapped Sky' tells the story of the revolution in Caeli-Amur, a city nestled upon white cliffs by the sea, though it feels much more Venice than Dover. As we begin 'The Stars Askew', the Houses have fallen and the Seditionists have taken the city, but the latter haven't yet consolidated their power, so the people are starving, and their revolution hasn't gone particularly how they expected.
The key players here aren't the new leaders, some of whom find quick deaths, but a few of those who sit a little lower in the hierarchy: Kata, a seditionist who doesn't want to lead; Maximilian, another who has found himself sidelined (and sharing his body with a god); and Armand, working a secret mission for the Houses. Their stories gradually intertwine but don't end in this volume; there will clearly be at least one more whose subject is obvious by the time we reach the rather vague finalé.
Davidson's prose is lush and inviting. Picking this up immediately after putting Barb & J. C. Hendee's 'The Dead Seekers' down was a revelation, like going from Enid Blyton to Victor Hugo. He doesn't just tell his story, he paints it with language, texture and agreeable complexity. We don't just sit back and read about his world, we leap into it with all our senses and experience it the way readers should always experience the books they're devouring.
His setting is magnificent. I may be missing much by having not read 'Unwrapped Sky', but this world is a fascinating one, its varied species and cultures aware of a number of previous ages. A Cataclysm has re-shaped the planet, changing plenty, but before that were people now regarded as 'gods'. These were men and women who mastered the Art of thaumaturgy and elevated themselves from the rest of their species, until such time as they warred and mostly destroyed themselves. But there are glimpses of times before that too: lost eras, civilisations and technologies that are as much science fiction as they are fantasy. This novel is an intriguing mixture of the two, wearing fantasy on the outside but flashing science fiction every once in a while so we know that it's underneath.
And we can't help but bring some of our own history into it as well. The seditionists in Caeli-Amur are quite obviously modelled on the French revolution, going much deeper than the Bolt being their guillotine and the names often sounding French. I'm going to delve back into some real history and see how closely he mirrored the vigilants and the moderates. However, he dipped widely: the bloodstone mines are Russian gulags; the gladiatorial combat in the Arena is Roman bread and circuses; and the philosopher-assassins are half Shaolin monks and half Persian assassins. Much of the rest is borrowed from Greek mythology, right down to the minotaur on the misleading cover. Yes, there are minotaurs here, though they are far from frequent or important in the grand scheme of things.
What's hardest for me to get over in this review is just how deeply Davidson dives into this world. This is a 450-page novel, but it feels more like half a dozen of them. There are minor subplots here painted with more colour than some entire novels I've read (like 'The Dead Seekers') and they're spaced out well in a post-calamity world that has focused itself inwards. Large cities like Caeli-Amur and Varenis are mature creatures full of history and culture, but their inhabitants don't explore their world much. Wander out a little way in any direction and there's something to discover, a new old something with an introduction through set-piece visuals: a ruined city, a new philosophy, an ancient relic, a lost god, a ruined road, an important link to history.
What's next hardest for me to get over in this review is how Davidson's story is really an overlay to the backdrop that is this fantastic world. That's not to suggest that it isn't important and complex, because it is; a progression of puzzle pieces popping into place to show us the future of the city of Caeli-Amur, put there by a variety of characters who grow and change as they start to see what that picture looks like. However, this isn't all about one city and it isn't all about how that will look after this particular change. It's about a world, in which Caeli-Amur merely plays a part, and it's about a progression of changes such cities have gone through over time. Is this calamitous change number five or six? Maybe fifteen. With a placement in history so deep, we pull back to see a much bigger picture than just a revolution and I'm a huge fan of Davidson's accomplishment in this.
The downside for me is that the book doesn't really end, it fades away as it reaches a particularly crucial point in Caeli-Amur's transformation. Some threads of plot end naturally here but others are left to hang until the third book arrives to pick them up. Kata, for instance, has a strong story arc here, her growth an important and credible thing, her development changing her into a new person by the end of this second book, whose story is changed in turn by who she becomes. Armand's growth, however, which is arguably even greater, is all about what he's going to be doing in the third book, so it has little impact on this one.
I have no idea how far Davidson plans to go, but this world could easily take over his life. For now, I'm on board and eager to discover more. Clearly I need to go back and read 'Unwrapped Sky', but I want to see where we're going next more than I can remember wanting for any book in recent years. ~~ Hal C F Astell