Published: June 5th 2014 by Bloomsbury Sydney
Format: ARC, 378 pages
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction
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Catherine Hunter is the daughter of a senior government official on the island of Anglya. She’s one of the privileged – she has luxurious clothes, plenty to eat, and is protected from the Collections which have ravaged families throughout the land. But Catherine longs to escape the confines of her life, before her dad can marry her off to a government brat and trap her forever.
So Catherine becomes Cat, pretends to be a kid escaping the Collections, and stows away on the skyship Stormdancer. As they leave Anglya behind and brave the storms that fill the skies around the islands of Tellus, Cat’s world becomes more turbulent than she could ever have imagined, and dangerous secrets unravel her old life once and for all . . .
Take Back the Skies has, on the surface, all the elements to make it an instant hit among the young and the old, but its poor execution lets it down at almost every turn, and I was quite disappointed with it.
The World: The world of Take Back the Skies is interesting. It’s a cyber-punk inspired world where there are flying galley-ships and androids working as servants. There’s a dystopian feel to it with a controlling government that Collects every child except for the first-born from all lower class families, making them fight in a war against the rebelling countries across the empire. All these elements, however, don’t work. On a fundamental level the world makes no sense. I’m all for genre-blending, but it feels like this novel has aspects of every genre out there without allowing any of them to play out well. Also, the aristocracy harbours an alarming hatred for the lower classes, with government officials dreaming about eradicating the commoners. This makes zero sense: it’s not possible to have an economy without those lower class people! Apparently they don’t educate the nobility in this country.
The Main Character: Catherine (Cat) Hunter is the only daughter of a high ranking government official. Her ailing mother can’t protect her against her violent father, who beats Catherine for every little infraction, no matter how minor. Rather than be cowed as most victims of domestic abuse are, Catherine makes plans to escape her household and live amongst the common people. The thing with Catherine is that I know she’s had a hard life, and sympathise with her to an extent, but the way she romanticised being a commoner is ridiculous. She’s protected from the Collections because of her status, and for all her foot-stamping about her not being a spoilt brat, the only she really, actually internalised how lucky she was in her upbringing was when she saw what truly happened to the Collected kids. The trope of privileged, rebellious teen doesn’t work for me here at all.
Her Alter-Ego: Catherine escapes with minimal fuss from her father, and quickly decides to hide in a nice merchant-ship. She disguises herself as a boy easily, and calls herself Cat. She’s welcomed by the crew of the Stormdancer, who all can’t help but love her fiery nature. When, inevitably, she’s outed as a girl, many of them are sympathetic and understanding, but Fox, the love interest, is rude, obnoxious and downright horrible to her. He takes her deception personally, and it doesn’t really make sense (even after it’s explained!). After being outed, however, Cat is fond of saying that she disguised herself as a boy because otherwise people would tell her she can’t do anything except cook and clean, and she wouldn’t like that AT ALL. I’d have thought she dressed as a boy to avoid being assaulted and to be able to roam freely, but sex and sexuality are weirdly ignored throughout the book.
The Sexism: That would have worked for me, if it hadn’t been for Annie, the only other woman in the story, who spends ALL HER TIME cooking and doing laundry. It would have worked for me if Cat hadn’t been the only person to help Annie out in the kitchen, because the boys were apparently to precious for that. It could have worked for me if Fox wasn’t such a sexist pig himself, refusing to see Cat as a real person for too long, and then slipping into the role of her protector in the last third of the book. It may have worked for me if Cat, instead of allowing Fox to say all manner of sexist things to her, actually stood up to him. It might have worked for me if Cat hadn’t gone from annoyingly impetuous and head-strong to a completely limp, simpering girl and had to be saved by Fox not once, but twice in the final climactic battle. But it didn’t work for me, because all those things happened, and no matter how many times one has the main character shout that she’s just as capable and brave as a girl, when you have people calling her “girlie” and men saving her at every corner, she’s clearly not as capable or equal as you’d like.
The Good Guys: The crew of the Stormdancer have made their living by existing under the radar of the controlling government Catherine’s grown up in. When she, as Cat, realises there’s something very wrong with the propaganda she and the rest of the population have been fed, she understandably demands answers. Here’s the thing: this crew knew about everything for years, at least eight of them(!), and they did nothing. And a fourteen-year-old girl who wouldn’t know her backside from her nose tells them ‘OH this is horrible why don’t you stop them wicked, wicked folk!‘ and they just up and make plans to overthrow a government? REALLY?
The Bad Guys: Another problematic aspect of the book were the villains. They’re almost cartoonish, there’s absolutely no depth to them, and their dogma doesn’t even make sense. The evil plan they have is horrifying, absolutely, but it seems like a six-year-old came up with it and had no adults around to point out the massive holes in it. And, when we come down to it, they were foiled too effectively. Why no back-up plans guys?
The Plot: I think Take Back the Skies could have shone, could have really been something, if it hand’t been for the excessively simplistic plotting. Everything happens too easily. Catherine escapes her father, becomes a boy, leads a rebellion, saves her country, without obstacles. Oh, bad things happen, but there’s no urgency or fear.
The Ending: No review of this book is going to neglect to mention the ending. I was surprised: for a book with absolutely no surprises anywhere else, it certainly left me gobsmacked. The ending was the only time I felt the book rise out of its Middle Grade themes and really get into Young Adult territory (some would argue it transcends YA, even). However, I’m really not seeing how there’s going to be more. Everything seems answered by the time we get to the epilogue, and I can’t see where the rest of the series will take us.
And I’m not exactly eager to find out. Take Back the Skies had the potential of a blockbuster, and I’m very disappointed to find that it doesn’t deliver on most of them. The back of the book describes Lucy Saxon as a “female Christopher Paolini”, which is problematic in itself, but I think this book feels like it’s written by a sixteen-year-old in ways that Eragon didn’t. It reads like B grade fan fiction.