REVIEW: SKYBORN (SERAPHIM #1)
HOW I RATED IT
3/5 While I really enjoyed the concepts presented in this book as well as the exciting battle scenes, the meandering plot and characters I couldn't really connect with ultimately made this one a mixed bag for me.
To begin my thoughts on a high note, I think the setting of this story is one of the things that really kept me reading. The world is in what seems to be a sort of post-apocalyptic scenario where all that remains of the planet are a collective of independent floating islands who are ultimately beholden to a central one which is aptly named "Center." I loved the setup of these islands suspended in the sky. Lots of fantasy and sci fi stories will have these types of locations as window dressing, but it was so much fun to have a story that deeply explores what life would actually be like in such a place. What people eat, how they live, and how they battle over resources were little worldbuilding nuggets that tugged me along. It was also interesting to explore the social system and I appreciated that it was a little more nuanced than just rich or poor and that there were layers of political clout as well as the added wrinkle of how magical prowess and entrance into the Seraphim could drastically alter one's standing in society. The Seraphim order was also pretty cool in how it was structured and the little bits of history that are shared about it's past. As the story developed, I came to realize that this was all building up a sort of dystopia, complete with different isolated factions, a sinister central authority, and a budding rebellion. I don't really mind a good dystopia so this aspect was fine by me, but if you're not the type to go for these kinds of settings, then this is probably something you would want to know. One thing that I did find tiresome is that the story ends up employing the tired old fantasy cliche of religion being the root of all evil, being filled with nothing but oppression and lies. I was also just genuinely confused by the way religion is portrayed in this. There seem to be references that evoke Judeo-Christian beliefs, though there isn't any actual Judaism or Christianity involved so far as I could tell. I was left to wonder if this was some offshoot/perversion of an actual religion from the old Earth and if this is even supposed to be our planet at all or if it was purely coincidence that these people would have similar concepts of Heaven, Hell, Angels, and God as people on Earth might. While the conspiracy that the "theotechs" are involved in was engaging, I think this is an example of exactly how not to handle religion in a fantasy setting as it raised so many more questions than it answered which I found distracting.
Perhaps the weakest area of the book for me was the characterization, both of our two main characters and the various companions that they meet along the way. Kael and Breanna Skyborn are two headstrong sixteen-year-olds who have suffered the devastating loss of both their parents at a tender young age. While I appreciated the setup for them, my biggest issue with how they come off is probably thanks to the truly bizarre dialogue that plagues all of the character interactions. The most frustrating thing is that Dalglish seems to know how bad some of the lines are because the book itself actively acknowledges them. While that might sound like fun, this is done repeatedly and left me wishing that he had spent less time poking fun at his cheesy lines and more effort on simply writing something more believable and compelling. It probably didn't help that these characters can go from sour to sweet faster than a Sour Patch Kid. I know teenage hormones are a thing, but no one shifts tone that quickly within the span of a single conversation. The romances and friendships that the siblings have during their time in the Seraphim school were also quite uninspired. Both siblings essentially both end up dating the first person of the opposite sex that they have any sort of chemistry with and the puppy love that ensues is filled with strange YA cliches. The friendships are similarly contrived with both the main characters forming bonds with the first character of the same sex they meet who happen to also be their roommates. The "friends" aren't particularly nice to one another which made their relationships feel kind of shallow and hard to get too invested in. There are also a slew of random people, mostly within the Seraphim, who pop in and out of the story, but only a few of them seemed to be especially consequential and none of them made a particularly lasting impression on me.
The overall feel of this book is a bit of a mixed bag as I feel like this is stuck somewhere between YA and Adult fantasy. While the violence and brief moments of strong/crass language made this seem like it was potentially aimed at adults (and I did find it in the Adult Fantasy section of Barnes and Noble) I couldn't help but feel like this reeked of all the YA tropes and narrative devices that frustrate me. To be clear, I'm not a hater of all YA. I loved THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy as well as other dystopian fiction like THE GIVER QUARTET and ASCENDANT. I think part of where the issue lied for me was in the fact that this is a heavily character driven story and, as I've already stated, I didn't much care for the character work. In retrospect, there actually is a basic hero's journey that is told here, however when I was in the moment with the characters, there wasn't really any sense of forward momentum with the plot. The story instead leans heavily into the school trope and overindulges in just having the characters overexplain the admittedly interesting magic system during their classes or going through the minutia of how their winged apparatuses work all while forming odd friendships and romances. There are some interesting narrative seeds that are planted as the book progresses that hint toward conspiracies perpetrated by the theotechs and a rebellion led by a mysterious man and his followers. These threads were interesting, but ultimately felt like cheap devices to keep readers invested in the next book as none of them ever develop into anything particularly interesting within the span of this entry. While I am curious to see these mysteries resolved, I don't appreciate this style of storytelling as it fails to demonstrate to me that the author has what it takes to bring these to a fulfilling conclusion. Yes, I understand that Dalglish is a pretty popular author, but he's new to me and frankly, I tend to find popularity to be relatively meaningless when it comes to my enjoyment of a mainstream or indie author.
I did appreciate both how the simple, yet effective magic system worked as well as the story's commitment to actually focusing on the skies. The scenes where Bree is flying felt truly special and I am so glad that the book lived up to it's premise in this regard. In addition to the sheer bliss of soaring the skies was the heart-pounding aerial combat scenes that take place at different points in the book' Prologue and second half. The combat is brutal and bloody. It is so gruesome at times that I felt like this aspect clashed heavily with the juvenile dialogue, but I actually really enjoyed these moments as well. It kind of felt like a FINAL FANTASY fight on steroids. The creativity of the magic, the world, and the mechanics of flight that Dalglish laid out all come together during these sequences in some brilliant ways. Even though I didn't feel fully invested in the characters, just being in the heat of these battles made me suddenly feel invested in the outcome of the conflicts.
While not a massive tome or anything, this book is of a nice size and has a page count a little bit higher than your average YA fantasy. One thing that I have noticed with my copy though is that the top of it has noticeably yellowed and speckled. Yes, I have owned this book for quite some time, but it is a lot more discolored and beat up than other books that I've owned for longer so either I just didn't take especially good care of it, or perhaps this is a sign of being put together with cheap materials. This is especially a shame because the cover design is quite nice and probably deserved a better construction. The interior, while not super fancy or anything, is nicely formatted with little flourishes on the chapter headings that I enjoyed as well.
If I had read this at a different time in my life, then it may have landed differently for (or maybe it wouldn't have, I'm not really sure). While I really appreciated the creativity of the world and am genuinely interested in some of the broader narrative threads that are teased out, I just don't know that I felt satisfied enough to end up continuing with the rest of the trilogy, especially with there being so many other books I want to get to.
(+) Fascinating fantasy world
(+) Spectacular aerial combat sequences
(+) Interesting, yet simple, magic system
(+) Awesome focus on flight and living in the skies
( ) Some broader mysteries that were compelling, BUT don't develop into anything meaningful in this book (likely being saved for the rest of the trilogy)
(-) Strange character interactions and romances that didn't do anything for me
(-) A plot that didn't have a strong sense of forward direction
(-) YA tropes used even though this didn't necessarily seem like it was meant for young adults
(-) Use of the tired "religion is evil and full of lies" cliche, #OverIt