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Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna
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Falling Sky

by Rajan Khanna

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I enjoyed Falling Sky a lot more than I thought I would. That’s no meagre accomplishment, considering how many books are out there in the market these days involving zombies in a post-apocalyptic type future. But Rajan Khanna did not have to resort to any gimmicks or convoluted methods to make his novel stand out. All he did was come up with an awesome premise – that when a virulent epidemic broke out two generations ago and turned most of the population into mindless Ferals, humanity managed to survive by simply taking to the skies.

That means airships. Entire cities that float. People like main protagonist and narrator Ben Gold feel most comfortable off the ground, because that translates to safety from coming in contact with the tainted blood of Ferals, and in turns means being able to live out another day. Ben, who has always been happy on his own piloting his airship Cherub, finds a way to make money by working with the intelligent and headstrong Miranda, leader of a group of ambitious scientists hoping to find a cure for the Feral virus.

But then Valhalla strikes, and the skies are no longer a safe haven. A faction made up of savage pirates, Valhalla is bent on conquering and stealing from other settlements by employing the most depraved measures – like airlifting infected Ferals and dropping them into defenseless cities. After being caught in one such attack, Ben’s life is forever changed and he is forced to make some difficult decisions. He’s the kind of guy who’s always lived by the motto “Every man for himself”, but for the first time in his life he realizes there may be bigger things to fight for.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed this book so much if it weren’t for Ben. I loved his voice and took to his casual and devil-may-care attitude right away, and I found that the first-person narrative in the present tense worked surprisingly well for the story. Ben isn’t exactly someone you can admire or point to as a good role model, but I liked him all the same. Somewhat self-serving at times and frequently having a short view of the problem, Ben doesn’t always mean to screw the people around him over, but his impulsive nature usually leads him to do it all the same. But he’s got a good heart, as proven by the many times he’s gone out of his way to try and repay a favor or make up for his mistakes, and I find that admirable. And fine, I’ll also admit he’s got a bit of that roguish charm which I find irresistible.

You also have to love the mood of the story. One might expect a post-apocalyptic zombie book to be on the dark and grim side, but I would describe Falling Sky as more an adventurous and action-filled novel. That’s not to say the world that Ben lives in is without its grit and despair, because in fact, the author does a good job illustrating why a future infested with Ferals is not a very pleasant place to be. Mindless and violent beast-like zombies aside, so much technology has been lost and a lot of the crucial supplies like ammo and fuel from two generations ago have been depleted. But humanity has had enough time to deal with aftermath of the epidemic, and the tone that I get from the story is that life continues moving forward. Certain facets of society and culture have eroded away and things may be done a little differently, but people like Ben still have their sense of humor, and others like Miranda and her scientists have their hopes and dreams.

My main complaint is that the ending came and went too quickly and suddenly. We are literally dropped into the conclusion, and…scene. All I can say is, I really, really, really hope there will be a sequel. The story may be more or less wrapped up, but because of the abruptness of the way things ended, I just can’t help but think it’s not over. If there’s a book two though, definitely sign me up for it. ( )
  stefferoo | Nov 19, 2014 |
A couple of generations ago, our world suffered the outbreak of a plague that renders the infected zombie-like and feral, reduced to an animalistic existence of eating, fighting, breeding, and dying. The survivors have mostly taken to the skies, living in airships or elevated settlements the Ferals can't reach, and exercising an extreme caution against infection that has resulted in a society where trust and bodily contact are minimised. Ben Gold, captain of the airship the Cherub, takes on a contract guarding the scientists of a settlement seeking a cure -- something few still believe in -- but when they want to bring one of the deadly contagious Ferals aboard ship to investigate an anomaly in its blood, he balks... until the ruthless tactics of an expansionist old enemy threaten to wipe out the scientists and their settlement, drawing Ben back into the fight.

Yes, it's the zombie apocalypse, sort of, but it really doesn't feel like it. Zombies are pretty played out at the moment, but the author uses a light touch with the Ferals, and instead plays to a far more topical and far more likely fear -- infection. Awareness that a single drop of blood, a single spatter of saliva, a moment of unnoticed contact with any number of bodily fluids unsavoury or otherwise, and you have in your very veins a silent passenger that will soon rob you of your humanity. It's a society where people are afraid to expose skin, to touch, to have sex, to have children, because to allow closeness with anyone is an act of ultimate trust in their honesty, their competence and their vigilance. One kiss and you could have two days left to know your own name.

It's an awareness that dogs the characters' steps every moment, and both the ramifications for Ben's psyche and the broader strokes of the impact it's had on the surviving societies he encounters are well-drawn. The organic and evocative worldbuilding is easily my favourite part of the novel, and straight off the bat I think the author's got a good knack for providing a sense of place and of history without info-dumping.

The story moves along at a nice clip, packing a lot into a pretty slender book without leaving the reader feeling short-changed, and so making me inclined to forgive a few minor contrivances and gaps in logic. I did feel the ending was rushed, and was actually surprised it didn't just leave off at a cliffhanger; as frustrating as the wait for another book can be, I might have preferred that it did, because the resolution is too pat for my tastes. It felt like Khanna planned on either a larger page count or another book, and threw together this ending when he realised he might not be able to write it.

Ben is a likeable enough character, sometimes hypocritical and sometimes weak in ways that are believeable for the surroundings in which he's grown and the history he's lived through, without making him unsympathetic. Most of the others are lightly drawn but not lacking in personality, aside from Miranda, who seems to disappear and reappear as needed to bait Ben into the right place for the plot to move forward, and for someone who so provokes his desire, it would be nice if we had a better glimpse into what it is about her as a person that's desirable. If there's a sequel I think I'd appreciate a change of narrator, perhaps to Miranda herself, as she seems to be a prime candidate for being at the heart of the story and could use the fleshing out. I do feel like this story was a complete arc for Ben, and the loose threads could be tied up while seeing him through someone else's eyes.

I have some real problems with the writing from a technical standpoint, and it brought me out of the book several times. Look, I know it's fine to start a sentence with a conjunction, but you should really reconsider doing it six times in a row. Otherwise you end up with abominations like this: And it is. And I'm happy. But we're going to have to go get the Ferrari. And it might not work with the fuel he's got. And it will put us out in the middle of Feral territory. But it's a place to live.

I'd accept it as a way of conveying panicked thought on the narrator's part were it not so damn frequent. The book is absolutely littered with examples of such, though, so it comes off as either bad writing or a great deal of simple-mindedness on Ben's part. Mostly just bad writing. I also appreciate the idea of transitioning from longer sentences to shorter, choppier ones as a means of ramping up the tension during action-packed moments, and can think of a number of authors who do it very well, but there's a painful number of sentences in Falling Sky that aren't choppy so much as horribly fragmented. For example: As tense as I am right now, as strongly as I want to yell at her to get out. Now. So we don't get captured and killed. In spite of all that, I can't help but be captivated by her, standing here, now, doing what she does best. Think. Process. Calculate. Solve.

Argh.

I don't need either of these devices to be eliminated, just toned way the fuck down so that I am not constantly taken out of the story by them. Used sparingly, they might be effective, but here they are just too frequent to be anything but irritating and repetitious.

I'd enjoy a sequel, and I hope there's plans for one. If not, I look forward to seeing what the author turns his worldbuilding talents to next. But if the editing isn't a little tighter, I might need a drink before I review it. And another drink. And another. Drink. Now. Really.

Review from Bookette.net ( )
  Snumpus | Nov 1, 2014 |
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