Please Note: I received “Skyward Inn” as an advance review copy from Netgalley for an honest review.
“Skyward Inn” by Aliya Whiteley has quickly risen to the top of my personal list of my most anticipated books of this year. It releases on March 16, 2021 from Solaris, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Devon, England, where the Western Protectorate, a Libertarian wet dream in which subsistence-based agriculture is the primary means of industry and technology is shunned, has set up shop and abandoned the coalition of world powers. In this bucolic countryside of small town togetherness, gossip and community council meetings, human Jem and Qitan Isley run an inn called the Skyward Inn. They rise to a moderate business success based on a mysterious alcoholic beverage that Isley has brought with him from his home world, which they call The Brew. The name of this eponymous drink is not really in all capitals in the book; it just becomes important to the story.
Jem and Isley are veterans of interplanetary war, each full of regrets and unrequited longing. Isley is the penultimate outsider, the “alien,” and all the prejudices that come with that identity; but here, Jem is an outsider, too. She left home, abandoned her son Fosse to her brother Dom, and her son now wants nothing to do with her. The point of view alternates between Jem in a first person perspective to that of Fosse, who also has trouble seeing himself as part of this world. Add in all your colorful characters of small town rural life.
But this peaceful, beautiful place is not all it seems. Elsewhere in this world, a mysterious disease rages, and it threatens the apparent safety of the Protectorate every day. But the disease is not what it seems. Just as the brew is not what it seems, and so on. Everyone is hiding something. The fragile veneer of utopia, if you’re the correct type of person, will soon splinter.
Jem copes by drinking the brew with seemingly magical properties; fighting with her brother, who is a leader in the Protectorate who is something of an ideological purist; and counting her regrets. Fosse copes by escaping to an abandoned farm. One day, he discovers the farm is not abandoned after all – and that is when everything changes. And one day, Isley’s Qitan friend Won comes to visit, and Won has a problem; and everything changes for Jem, and for the town.
This is a beautiful, weird, surreal piece of fiction with a deep sense of interiority of character and graceful, gentle prose. It is a story of found family, melancholy, community, and identity. Most of all it is a story of what it means to belong, and what it means to remain apart, and the ties that bind us to the families we wish we had. Jem yearns to belong, to have been a better mother, to have been with Isley, to feel a part of the town, and she mourns the decisions that have kept her alone. But she comes to realize that perhaps her very independence is what will save her. The lush, steady prose, the thoughtful focus on these three characters – Dom, Fosse and Jem – was very well done.
I did have some quibbles, though. I like my science fiction to be science-based, although I am willing to suspend belief for good space opera. This however, did not have much science in it. I can’t reveal too much about the mysterious disease without giving spoilers; it did make sense in the end, where the author was going, but the mechanics of the disease were decidedly magical for literary effect, and I found it confusing until the very end as to how it all exactly worked. It all wrapped up in a weird, bizarro, dark, tidy way in the end, though, which I loved in all its weirdness, regardless of my initial hesitation. I would call it a space fantasy more than science fiction. I also wanted more dimension to Isley’s character, and I didn’t really understand the biology of how the Qitans functioned. But when I saw it as fantasy instead, I appreciated it more.
I thought I knew where this was going – the small bucolic town and a cult, right? But it was a nice upending of the trope of colonialist Earth invading helpless alien cultures, and that is all I will say about that.
Bottom line: This is a weird, wonderful story of a world that is not so unlike our own, a story about finding yourself when the whole world wants to find you first; a story about what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself, and the sacrifices that we make for the higher good. I enjoyed this book immensely. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.