There is a reason I write book reviews: I thought I hadn’t enjoyed Warcross, the first and only other book I have read by Marie Lu. Turns out I did like it! Skyhunter is a different genre, but a lot of the same tropes are present: you have male/female romantic leads paired up to fight against an authoritarian ruler. I definitely didn’t like this one as much as Warcross, and I debated reading the sequel (which I just finished today, as I write this review). Ultimately, I think this is a good young adult or new adult novel about dystopia and rebellion, but it’s a so-so novel overall.
Talin is a refugee from Basea. When the Karensa Federation swallowed up her country, she and her mother fled to nearby Mara. Mute, Talin eventually finds a precarious position among the Strikers, Mara’s elite fighting force, who also communicate via sign language. Though Talin has earned renown for her fighting prowess, she is always an outsider because of her nationality. When her Shield is killed, her status is in jeopardy—until she ends up becoming crucial to managing a prisoner of war who might be the key to protecting Mara from the Karensa Federation’s army.
The setting is decent. There are suitable vague references to Early Ones (forerunners) with enough hints dropped that maybe this is a post-apocalyptic part of Earth, though it could just as easily be an alternative world where the forerunners developed parallel to our society. In any event, this continent is dotted with ruins of fantastic technology and materials that contemporary humans have scavenged. Mara is the only country that hasn’t fallen to the Karensa Federation, which makes use of Early One science to transform its captured enemies into fearsome beasts—Ghosts—that are controlled only by the Premier of the Federation. Strikers are adept at killing Ghosts before they can bite someone—if they fail, the victim is doomed to transform into a Ghost unless someone delivers a mercy blow.
The spectre of transformation and body horror looms large over this book—not in an unpalatable way, but it’s clear that Lu is thinking about the ways in which our modern society polices our bodies. The mental link between the Ghosts and the Premier, and the similar link shared by Talin and Red, demonstrates different sides of a coin: mind control versus a kind of enhanced empathy (some would call it telepathy). The science in Skyhunter is cold, grey, and hard—it is a science of steel.
For Lu, this is a story about allegiance. Talin is Basean, yet her allegiance is staunchly Maran. She fights for an adopted country that nevertheless discriminates against her—a familiar story for many marginalized groups that nevertheless choose to serve in Western militaries. Red was Karensan, yet he has defected. The tenuousness of his allegiance is one of the critical plot points of the book, along with the question of how much someone has to prove themselves before we accept that they are loyal. Going deeper still, we see personal allegiances: Adena and Jeran, and Jeran and Aramin, and of course, Talin and her mother. We even see unhealthy allegiances, such as the fealty Jeran feels he owes his abusive father.
All of this boils down to a cauldron of conflict that should be very fulfilling. And at some points, it is. Talin gets a lot of character development, and the supporting cast gets their fair share. I think what bothers me is that the climax of the book feels somewhat contrived—particularly, a betrayal just gets revealed out of nowhere, pure exposition, with very little foreshadowing. I think it’s supposed to come across as a big twist—but it’s just so logical, so cynical and pragmatic on the part of the traitor, that it hardly feels surprising.
So despite the setting, the interesting use of science and atrocities this leads to, and some good characterization, Skyhunter doesn’t do anything particularly new for me. I think for younger readers who haven’t yet steeped themselves so thoroughly in dystopia, this book is going to be a much more interesting read. For me, it was fine. (Also keep in mind that I am, unfortunately, writing this from the hindsight of having just finished the sequel, which I think has coloured this review a little bit. But you’ll read more about that soon.)