While I cannot get on with his sprawling epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, I am a real fan of much of Martin’s writing – see my review of Tuf Voyaging here, and I also enjoyed Lisa Tuttle’s The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross – see my review here. So it was a no-brainer that I would pounce on this one when I spotted it. I’m so glad I did – and I’ll be linking this review to Sci-Fi Month.
The planet of Windhaven was not originally a home to humans, but it became one following the crash of a colony starship. It is a world of small islands, harsh weather, and monster-infested seas. Communication among the scattered settlements was virtually impossible until the discovery that, thanks to light gravity and a dense atmosphere, humans were able to fly with the aid of metal wings made of bits of the cannibalized spaceship.
Many generations later, among the scattered islands that make up the water world of Windhaven, no one holds more prestige than the silver-winged flyers, who bring news, gossip, songs, and stories. They are romantic figures crossing treacherous oceans, braving shifting winds and sudden storms that could easily dash them from the sky to instant death. They are also members of an increasingly elite caste, for the wings—always in limited quantity—are growing gradually rarer as their bearers perish. With such elitism comes arrogance and a rigid adherence to hidebound tradition. And for the flyers, allowing just anyone to join their cadre is an idea that borders on heresy. Wings are meant only for the offspring of flyers—now the new nobility of Windhaven. Except that sometimes life is not quite so neat…
The story charts the fortunes of Maris, who we first meet as a small child, foraging for anything of value on the beach when she makes a life-changing encounter. She meets a flyer called Russ who picks the child up and treats her dream of being a flyer as something more than just the imaginings of some land-bound brat. He eventually adopts her and trains her – until unexpectedly, he has a son. Maris helps to bring the motherless boy up, until the terrible day when she is forced to hand over the wings she has been flying with. For she is not entitled to keep them – they belong to Coll, Russ’s son, even though he yearns to be a singer and has already caught the eye of one of the best professional singers on Windhaven, who wishes to train him. But tradition says that Coll must follow Russ as a flyer, despite his inability to feel the wind.
As we follow Maris and her battle to continue to fly, we also learn of the original colonists and how they accidentally encountered Windhaven. The worldbuilding is excellent with wonderful descriptions of the storms that regularly sweep the planet and the air currents that generally keep the flyers in the sky – and occasionally fling them into the sea. It is a hard, dangerous life and flyers keep to themselves, forming close ties with each other, while despising those who are not able to fly.
A particular decision is made that overturns a tradition that has begun to cause problems – and in a less nuanced, clever book, we would get a variety of adventures involving talented flyer Maris and that would be that. However in this book, decisions have consequences that no one foresaw. The rest of the book continues to follow what befalls Maris, while also exploring the fallout from those decisions and how they impact upon the traditional way of life on Windhaven for both flyers and land-bound alike. I love the way this plays out and how the previous faultlines in society are not only heightened but previous prejudices are also strengthened.
This is a clever, thoughtful book that nonetheless also delivers an engrossing story full of adventure and incident, featuring a sympathetic and believable protagonist. Highly recommended for fans of quality colony adventure… quality fantasy… quality books, basically. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.