Some of the best stories we read are the ones that leave you wanting more once you’ve finished. Untethered Sky did that to me recently. Fonda Lee’s novella is not a sprawling epic where the characters go through hundreds of pages of action, intrigue, and drama. Instead, it’s a self-contained, character-driven adventure which may not have the scope of a grand adventure but will still sweep you up in the world she has built.
Untethered Sky is a story told by Ester, a new apprentice for the Royal Mews hoping to become a ruhker. Ruhkers capture and train giant birds called rocs and are tasked with protecting the people of the Kingdom of Dartha from the monsters and beasts which threaten them. In particular, ruhkers and their rocs always look out for manticores, monsters with the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the noseless head of an ape, predators which have a taste for human flesh. Rocs are the only creatures that can hunt and kill manticores, and that is exactly what Ester wants to do with her life: train rocs and kill manticores. It’s all she’s ever wanted after a manticore killed most of her family when she was young. But this is not a tale of vengeance. Ester’s story is much more than that.
Much of the action in Untethered Sky takes place in and around the Royal Mews as Ester learns how to train and hunt with a roc. Ester’s relationship with her roc, Zahra, forms the backbone of the narrative. Rocs are beautiful but deadly creatures, with talons the length of your forearm and beaks built to pierce and tear at their prey, a beast built to rule the skies. Training such wild creatures to listen to commands from a ruhker is no easy task. Even if the ruhker succeeds in forming a bond with a roc, there is always the possibility that a roc may leave their ruhker on a whim. Ester often reflects on her deep affection for Zahra, on her abilities as a ruhker, and on her worries that Zahra could leave her. Of course Zahra is not alone in this task. Darius and Nasmin, two experienced ruhkers, help Ester learn the ropes at the Mews, and the friendships that develop between the three of them add another layer to the narrative. If Ester’s relationship with Zahra defined by the delicate bond between human and beast, her friendships with Darius and Nasmin are defined by their work and how their successes impact each other in ways known and unknown.
While these relationships are what drive the story, Lee’s world building also deserves some attention. Lee does a lot of “show, don’t tell” world building in Untethered Sky, and while Ester has no interest in royal intrigue or cultural immersion, we do get tantalizing glimpses of a much wider world. Dartha is a kingdom inspired by the Persian and Arabian kingdoms of our own history, a kingdom of open plains, tall mountains, and vibrant culture, and we only get to see Ester’s place within it. It’s why I hope that Lee writes more stories set in Dartha. So give this story a read to help convince her to do that!