I am a huge Marie Lu fan. I haven’t read and I haven’t loved all her books, but almost all I have read were gold mines that got me out of reading slumps. I was in one when I started Skyhunter, and maybe I just had too much on my mind, but my dad gave me, while I was in the middle of this book, an illustrated edition of The Da Vinci Code, and the snippet I decided to read was more fascinating than what I was reading with this book. Maybe I was just hoping for more than I ended up getting from the absolutely beautiful cover. That’s the perfect blue to get me captivated.
When you open this book, you’ll see a map of a heart shaped island. Whatever it used to be called, it’s now known as The Karensa Federation, said Federation conquering every country. Except for the small one of Mara on the north west side, where they’ve kept defences up with trained Strikers. But it’s not Karenese soldiers the Strikers of Mara have to primarily fight. It’s Ghosts. Ghosts are similar to the zombies in video games, once human but long dead, only more impossible to kill because they’re deliberately indestructible, unless you slice them a specific way through the neck. The Federation creates them. One of these Strikers is Talin, a refugee with her and her widowed mother originally from the conquered country of Basea, and she speaks completely through sign language because thanks to a torture she narrowly survived, she’s incapable of talking or even really screaming anymore.
Strikers also have Shields, partners to protect them on the field and truly end them if they get killed so they aren’t able to turn into a Ghost. One day Mara ends up setting a large public execution for someone on the opponent’s side who got caught. He strangely also doesn’t speak, but has noises come out of his mouth whenever really hurt so he must still have vocal cords, and he is really protective of this mouse he keeps like a pet. Something odd about him causes Talin to stop his execution. Her excuse is his info could be an asset, and her idea backfires because he, who ends up having the name of Redlen, or Red, ends up becoming her new Shield after her close friend who was her old shield got killed, a death she completely blames herself for. It ends up a burden…until more ends up realized about Red, not just his feelings or his origins, but a secret power and why he both has it and isn’t where he should be.
Lu feels right at home in the dystopian genre here. It has all the ingredients for a good time? So why such a low score? I’m still recommending Skyhunter because I recognized how readers will fly through numerous chapters and some very moving moments. But, still, considering Lu is a favourite, what caused the mixed reaction?
There were in the end two flaws that aren’t necessarily the book’s fault. The plot structure is too similar to a lot of other dystopias I’ve read. The Federation doesn’t have much to stand out from any other dominating dictatorships, and I feel like there was more enthusiasm on Lu’s part when she invented the Republic and Colonies in her original Legend trilogy. The sensational anger and fear I’ve felt in series like Harry Potter, The Black Witch, An Ember in the Ashes and Escape from Furnace is kind of harder to feel in a book series of only two from an author who always promises new universes. Despite only two promised books, most of the first of this duology takes place in Mara even though there’s a lot more of the world left unexplored. Lu’s Warcross was also a fascinating sci-fi video game take. This is a link to an old website of mine and an article I once wrote for school about how realistic the idea and its politics are. Compared to these, Skyhunter is not as inspired.
So what was there that provided just enough for a recommendation? What was missing from the shelves that’s now filled with Skyhunter is the original idea that Talin can’t talk. The Federation’s poisonous gases permanently scarring her lungs and destroying her vocal cords is a cruelty that’s felt throughout the rest of the book, like a protagonist with their tongue long ago cut off. There’s a character she ends up able to communicate with telepathically, further magic allowing them to read their words even in opposing languages, and when it’s revealed she could cry with the feeling of actually talking to someone rather than having to sign her words, we totally get where those emotions are coming from.
The cliffhanger is nice, and there’s a lot of adventure. Skyhunter is more entertaining than a fair few books I’ve recently read, and it’s fair game for those who want something without the exposition or grandeur of more smug works of writing. If you read a lot already however, there are much more edgier and committed dystopian works to find, perhaps right alongside Lu’s name as you encounter her other works.
If you like this, I’d try Black Wings Beating by Alex London, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, All These Monsters by Amy Tintera and the marvellous anti-superhero movie Logan, which has similar themes of human experimentation