SKYWARD INN by Aliya Whiteley
Solaris, hb, £13/19
Review by Ian Green
The Skyward Inn sits on a hill in the Western Protectorate, and the locals play darts and drink brew. The Protectorate is cut off from the rest of the world, what was once Devon now having shrunk to an insular community focused on farming the land. The distant lights of Coalition spaceports on the horizon contrast with the horse-drawn carts and seeming rural idyll of the Protectorate.
A decade past, the human Coalition passed through the ‘Kissing Gate’ to the peaceful and idyllic planet Qita. The local Qitans did not resist, and humanities ravaging of their resources began. Now back in the Skyward Inn, Jem pours the drinks and flirts with the customers, and she doesn’t talk about the war or her strained relationship with her brother and her son Fosse. Jem is back from another world with her Qitan companion Isley who cooks and brews in the Skyward Inn; the isolationist Protectorate have welcomed him. Together they run the Inn, and when the customers have left, they sit in the quiet dark and remember Qita. Their quiet remembrance and life are troubled when a visitor from Isley’s past arrives, and nothing can be the same again. Meanwhile, Jem’s son Fosse tries to find where he fits in a world straining with memory and secrets.
Skyward Inn is a beautifully realised story, with achingly engaging prose that is lyrically evocative of both the familiar countryside of the Protectorate and simultaneously the utterly alien world of Qita. The novel has many strengths- in addition to the prose, the world-building is cunningly layered and slowly revealed. The relationships of Jem with her brother, son, and companion Isley are intricately realised. Whiteley is not reliant on violence and bombast to propel the plot forward, but what begins as a gentle and thoughtful meditation on guilt and conflict and community evolves into a wider plot, that is all the more effective for having taken the time to effectively set up its players. The latter stages of the novel enter a realm of weird that evokes Jeff VanderMeer or even hints of Lovecraftian imagery, but throughout what comes to the fore is the utterly serious way in which Whiteley treats her characters, world, and theme, and it is Ursula K. Le Guin that comes to mind most of all in comparison. This is a novel that is intelligent and rewarding and sweet and heartbreaking and horrible; it raises questions gently but does not allow our eyes to avert. Le Guin with dashes of Lovecraft. I cannot recommend it highly enough.