What’s new, everyone? If you’ve been following my reviews long enough, you know that one of my top reads of 2020 was Skyhunter by Marie Lu (Legend, The Kingdom of Back). With its eighteen-year-old heroine Talin Kanami devoting herself as a loyal Striker to her homeland of Mara’s mission of beating back the occupying regime of the Karensa Federation—along with its Ghosts, people who have been mutated into bloodthirsty beasts due to a fateful bite from another Ghost, and its Skyhunters, people who have been transformed into war machines with giant steel wings and armored skin—the book turned out to be a refreshing and riveting take on the YA dystopian genre. Now, Lu has closed out the duology with Steelstriker, which unfolds six months after the Fall of Mara, the devastating conquest that left Mara in the Federation’s clutches at the end of Skyhunter. In order to protect her mother, who is being held hostage by Federation leader Premier Constantine Tyrus, Talin has been forced to let him turn her into a ruthless and obedient Skyhunter. On top of that, the psychic link she built up with Federation deserter and first ever Skyhunter Redlen “Red” Arabes is waning. However, this won’t stop Talin, Red, and their Striker companions from collaborating together to continue the rebellion and topple the Federation once and for all.
There’s no doubt about it—Steelstriker is the sequel that Skyhunter richly deserves. It takes all of the enthralling characters, the bloodshed-plagued setting, the swift pacing, and the taut and action-packed plotting from its predecessor, then channels them into an all-consuming finale that amps up the stakes and stays true to the spirit of both the duology and Lu’s overall writing style. I did have quibbles with a few minor plot beats, but they don’t detract much from this terrific example of the YA dystopian genre. Even the Steelstriker cover art measures up to the jaw-dropping beauty of the Skyhunter cover art.
Unlike Skyhunter, which took place exclusively from Talin’s perspective, Steelstriker alternates between Talin and Red’s first-person present-tense POVs. Talin remains a fierce protagonist as she valiantly weathers the psychological warfare that Constantine wages against her via their telepathic bond, all while doing her best to avoid defying him so much that he punishes her mother in retribution. Red, while he and his Striker companions forge ahead on the insurgency front, has his own struggles to tackle, often contending with intrusions from an inner voice that criticizes him for his perceived failures and flaws. It’s easy to get caught up in the slow-burn romance between the two leads, even though it falls into the cheesy YA trope of Psychic Bond Love Story. The supporting cast is enjoyable as well, especially when it comes to the side romance between Striker Jeran Min Terra and former Firstblade Aramin Wen Calla.
As usual, worldbuilding keeps being one of Lu’s strengths. The prominent presence of the sign language with which characters communicate (particularly Talin, having been left mute from the poison gas that ruined her vocal cords a decade ago) and the way it merges with the quiet desolation of this post-apocalyptic landscape continues to be a hallmark of the duology. As the story progresses, the acutely bleak tone imprints on its audience the trauma that war inflicts on its survivors. In addition, the Federation’s practice of seizing statues, pieces of buildings, and other artifacts from annexed nations and installing them all over Karensa to celebrate their conquests is a blistering interrogation of the colonialism and cultural appropriation that prevails throughout the past and the present in our own world.
Constantine is compelling as a villain due to the terrifying cruelty that he demonstrates throughout the story and the cold-blooded effort he makes to quell Talin through their link. A gripe of mine, however, is that I didn’t really need the bits of the book that tried to make me feel sorry for him through peeks into the childhood abuse that he and his sadistic brother Caitoman endured from their father. While I’ve always been an advocate for complicated bad guys with sympathetic backstories, it’s also just as valid to present downright abhorrent villains like Sator, the nihilistic arms dealer who wants to invert the world into obliteration in Tenet, and President Snow, the sociopathic Capitol tyrant who stinks to high heaven of roses and blood in The Hunger Games. I would have preferred Constantine coming from a nurturing household to show how people who are blessed with love and privilege in their youth are still capable of growing up to be absolute scourges.
All in all, I’m delighted with what we got out of Lu’s duology, and I’m itching to see what she’ll create next. I’m going to break Steelstriker down in spoilery detail on my podcast in a few weeks, so make sure you tune into that episode if you enjoyed this review.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 90/100