Two or three years ago, I read Aliya Whiteley’s novella, The Beauty.
The novella was set in a world where all women had died off, leaving colonies of only men. Eventually, “The Beauty” began to show up, which were essentially big glowing mushroom people. And from there, it got really bizarre, to say the least, but it was right up my alley of weird science fiction.
So, when I saw that Whiteley had come out with a new science fiction book this year, I picked it up in hopes of more wacky, disturbing, philosophical sci fi.
Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed.
Here’s my review of Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley.
Skyward Inn was published in March 2021 by Solaris, and it received good reviews. Publishers Weekly said of it “Whiteley’s trademark subtle surrealism shines,” with which I have to agree.
The book follows the story of a small town in the Protectorate, somewhere in the UK. Humanity recently finished fighting a war with the alien planet Qita, and main characters Isley and Jem are veterans of that war – Isley from the Qitan side, and Jem from Earth’s.
Together, they run the Skyward Inn, a place where the townsfolk can come wash away their worries with brew, a special drink from Qita that Isley prepares.
Jem’s brother, Dom, is the mayor of the town, and he watches over Jem’s only son, Fosse. Fosse attends a private school and is often stricken with bouts of adolescent melancholy. It’s unclear how old Fosse is when the book starts, but by the end, he’s matured to a man.
The main conflict arises when a Qitan traveler, one of Isley’s friends, gets stranded on Earth, and sparks a mysterious disease that starts to afflict the surrounding neighborhoods.
Skyward Inn Is One of the Best New Sci Fi Books of 2021
I mentioned earlier that Whiteley’s style of science fiction is wacky, and I’d like to elaborate on that. In The Beauty, the weirdness starts fairly early on, with the emergence of the mushroom people. And it’s not weird so much because of the mushroom people—I’ve read, and written, weirder stuff than that—but it’s the style with which Whiteley writes about these phenomena.
Her style is simple yet eloquent, haunting yet mesmerizing, and it elevates what could be seen as a spooky or weird concept into something downright horrifying or mind-boggling.
Skyward Inn is the guidebook for this style.
For the first few chapters I was on edge—not because the story was action-packed or anything like that, but because I was waiting with baited breath for the story to take the weird turn I knew it would.
And it did, but in a—as Publishers Weekly said—subtle way.
There wasn’t a “Oh damn there are fungi people” moment, it was more of a gradual, creeping fear. Near the end, I actually had to put the book down because I knew that if I read any further, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. (Fun fact, I still had nightmares).
Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that Whiteley’s development through this novel was phenomenal, and it is proof of years of refining her craft. Skyward Inn succeeds at the style The Beauty laid the foundation for.
And when I say it’s one of the best new sci fi books of this year, I mean that wholeheartedly.
Speaking of hearts, I want to take a moment to talk about how Whiteley approaches familial love and individuality, because those themes really shine through at the end of the novel.
Fosse the Troubled Teen, Skyward Inn’s Only Hero
The main character’s son, Fosse, takes on a prominent role about halfway through the novel, and acts as the closest thing the story has to a hero.
His early predilection for outbursts of rage and malaise had me scratching my head for a little while. I was uncertain if Whiteley was just exaggerating his teenage tendencies, but I decided that was too over the top for her style, something else had to be going on.
Only later did I realize that Fosse was probably suffering from some kind of mental illness, because he at one point uses technology to repress his memories, and immediately starts to feel more at ease.
Whiteley poses an interesting relationship between Fosse and Jem, neither of whom really put in the optimal effort to keep up a parent-child relationship. Fosse seems more alone when he’s with Jem simply because he’s not sure how to feel or how to act when around her.
And the ability to convey that emotion onto the page, coupled with Fosse’s enigmatic mental health, is where Whiteley excels in this novel.
Yeah, some of the stuff is bizarre, of the keep-you-watching-your-bedroom-door variety, but at the end of the day, Skyward Inn is a story about human individuality. Fosse and Jem both see themselves as a individuals: Jem because she’s estranged from her son, and Fosse because he doesn’t feel like he has a place to fit in.
They don’t see themselves as a family whole, only as halves of a circle, facing opposite directions, curve to curve. The development of their familial bond is the point of the story, which only comes to fruition because of the wacko alien stuff at the end of the novel. (I really don’t know how to describe what happens with flat out telling you!)
I really regard this book as one of the best things I’ve read this year, and I’m glad I was able to write a little bit about it here. Reading this book brought me back to my English-major days at university. I saw so much potential for a literary criticism here, it’s just assurance that this book will go down as a sci-fi classic.
Overall, I rate Skyward Inn a 9.75/10.
But Isaac, you rave about this book, why not a 10?!
My only gripe—albeit very faint and almost inaudible—is that the beginning of the book could use a bit of a trim. I was hooked from the first chapter, but I felt there were places where the story dragged on just a hair more than is should have.
But that doesn’t impact how meaningful this story is, and it is certainly no slight against Whiteley’s skill. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for her next book!
If you liked this sci fi book review, check out some of our other reviews!