What’s new, readers? We’re now living in a world where President Donald J. Trump has caught the coronavirus. After months of claiming the disease would disappear and constantly scoffing at masks as a tool of the radical left, karma has bit him in his orange ass. It’s a telling indicator of what we’ve had to endure—specifically, being relentlessly gaslit over the past forty, oops, I mean four years—that when the announcement was made, the Internet overflowed with accusations that he’s faking his ailment. The conflicting medical reports aren’t doing much to provide solid evidence. If the superspreader-in-chief really is sick, that motorcade of his, in which Secret Service agents had to accompany him in the hermetically-sealed ride, proves he’s still an outstandingly selfish fool. Oh yes, and now White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has just tested positive for COVID-19 as well. Hopefully this can become a moment where anyone who opposes masks will finally realize they’re a vital safeguard to prevent transmission.
Now, let’s start in on Skyhunter, the YA SF dystopian series opener by Marie Lu (Legend, The Kingdom of Back). In a post-apocalyptic future where the Karensa Federation has subjugated almost every Nation in the world—due in part to its legion of Ghosts, once-human monsters that sniff out the blood of their prey and mutate victims into their own kind with a single bite—the one Nation that has been able to ward off the dictatorship is Mara, which protects itself with its Strikers, a special military wing trained to wipe out Ghosts. One of its fighters, eighteen-year-old Talin Kanami, fled to Mara with her mother a decade ago when the Federation besieged their homeland of Basea. When Talin challenges the forthcoming execution of Federation defector Redlen “Red” Arabes, her superior punishes her by appointing Red as her Shield—a partner with whom Strikers are “bonded until death from the moment we take our oath.” As the threat of Mara being crushed under oppression looms large, Talin discovers Red is no ordinary soldier of the Federation. Rather, he’s a Skyhunter, a “half-man, half-machine weapon,” and it turns out that he may also provide the means necessary to overthrow his imperialistic government.
As an immense fan of Lu, one of our most talented writers of young adult lit, I’m glad to see that Skyhunter (a book with one of the most stunning pieces of cover art I’ve ever seen) is proof of how she continues to take the seeds of intriguing ideas and cultivate them into stories full of relatable and strong characters, tight pacing, rich worldbuilding, and layers of emotional complexity. Skyhunter is also an example of how proficient Lu is at setting the tone. From the get-go she gives the reader such a precise sense of the somber and chilling feel through Talin’s first-person POV, which is all the more enriched by the fact that she uses sign language because poison gas wrecked her vocal cords as she escaped Basea. Her fellow Strikers are taught to use the same form of communication as well to evade Ghosts (makes you wonder why the family in A Quiet Place didn’t pick up the same tricks). Being the first book I’ve ever read that puts you in the mind of a mute protagonist, it was an enthralling experience, one where the bleak silence adds visceral depth to the war-ravaged setting.
Talin, the only expatriate among her Strikers, leads the potent character-driven narrative as a silent badass who is deeply faithful to Mara, even as its citizens treat her with xenophobic contempt. Their discrimination extends to the other immigrants who traveled from Federation-conquered Nations, including her mom. Barred from entering Newage, Mara’s capital, they’re forced to scrape by in a squalid setup of shanties and market booths outside the border walls. Meanwhile, the upper crust inside ignores the terrors of the ongoing war, too wrapped up in their own opulence, and they rail on Talin and other refugees as “rats” while appropriating their customs.
Granted, the novel makes no attempts to break the dystopian YA mold. Totalitarian regime ruled by an absolutely hateable tyrant? Rebel champion of the common people? Post-apocalyptic world founded on the ancient ruins of a technologically advanced civilization? Check, check, and check. Even the militaristic element gives off strong Legendvibes. Maybe this sounds like a turnoff for readers who are sick of these stock tropes. However, Lu does an excellent job at executing a refreshing take on the genre by forging a high-stakes story about a refugee who, with honor and fortitude, fights and suffers for a country that has spent years ridiculing her. Again, it was a wise choice on Lu’s part to embed an unflinchingly grim spirit right in the first chapter and reinforce it in the form of numerous devastating and gruesome scenes throughout the rest of the book.
The magnificently paced and twist-filled plot is a breeze to follow thanks largely to the vivid voice of Talin, who undergoes a fully realized arc while embarking on her quest to destroy the Federation. The side characters are delightfully fleshed-out, too—Adena Min Ghanna and Jeran Min Terra, Talin’s Striker companions; Firstblade Aramin Wen Calla, commander of the elite warriors; and Red, whom the Federation experimented on as a human war machine. They each have distinct personalities and backstories, but they and Talin all coalesce well with each other. Their synergy makes it easy to root for them, especially as they confront numerous harrowing obstacles throughout a rousing narrative that brims with powerful themes of immigration and the scars that war leaves on its victims.
All in all, if you’re onboard for the dystopia genre and Lu’s previous writings, to say that Skyhunter is a prime title to put on your bookshelf would be a hell of an understatement.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy, stay strong, and vote, vote, vote.
Windup score: 94/100