Untethered Sky

Book Reviews / Wednesday, April 12th, 2023

By: Fonda Lee
Genre: Fantasy Novella
Publisher: Macmillan-TOR Forge

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved her with the gravity of a stone sinking into a pool”
Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky

Untethered Sky is a beautiful fantasy novella by Fonda Lee that touched me on a deeply personal level. It is the story of young Ester, who dreams of one day becoming a ruhker in the Royal Mews, flying rocs. These very large birds of prey are flown to kill manticores, deadly creatures who stalk the countryside killing those in their path. While her mother and brother were killed by a manticore, this is not a story of revenge. Despite this, Ester has always had a reverence for nature and flying a roc is the ultimate closeness of her interaction with the birds she loves. At one point in my life, I was on my way to becoming a falconer. While it did not come to fruition, I have worked with birds of prey for over 30 years. The feeling of being so close to these magnificent birds, the feeling of being at ease with them while knowing they are and always will be wild at heart, is simply indescribable. Reading Ester’s story brought back those wonderful memories as I followed her journey. Ms. Lee’s attention to the details of falconry and the relationship of the falconer to the bird was incredibly accurate. She wove a gorgeous tale of both the sport of falconry, a little fantasy, and for me, our relationship with the natural world. I loved this novella. While I would always want more of any story with birds of prey, fantasy or not, it was perfect in length and completed Ester’s journey.

The story is in the first person by Ester, as she trains to fly Zahra, the roc she is given when it was a very young juvenile. We follow her training to be a ruhker (the falconers in the story) and fly these giant birds of prey. They are very dangerous, and the training to become a ruhker is a long and often dangerous process. The ruhkers are invaluable as the rocs are the only predators of the dreaded manticores. It was a joy to read as I know how it difficult it is to work with birds of prey. Ester had to slowly gain the trust of the roc, and the intricacies of flying her in a sequence of steps. As I read Ester’s training of Zahra, I recognized the process. Hooding of falconry birds, as she did the roc, keeps them from being distracted until they fly. They learn, as Zahra did, to take food from a lure, which teaches the bird to come back to the falconer, which is often done along with a whistle. I was so impressed that Ms. Lee even added at one point in Esters training of Zahra, other ruhkers would fly them at a certain weight and were giving her advice. In falconry, the weight of the bird is carefully measured. A full bird will not hunt, so an optimal weight must be determined for each one. One of the most important things that Ester knew that ultimately, Zahra was a wild animal, and their relationship of trust could end at any moment. Understand that no matter if it is fantasy, or real falconry, these birds are not pets, and are not treated as such.

“Any defiance of the wild leads at best to a fragile, temporary victory. Nature and fate are their own capricious monsters, ones that cannot be tamed any more than a roc ever truly belongs to her ruhker.”
Fond Lee, Untethered Sky

Untethered Sky is also a fantasy and did have the elements of a fantasy in the novella. The rocs  were too large to sit on a glove, so they are taken by special chariots to where they would hunt the manticores. The manticores themselves were fantasy animals, as were the rocs. I was drawn in from the first page, not only reading about Ester’s training, but the fear of the manticores, and the horrible ways in which they terrorized the people. There was a perfect balance of these elements. Through it all, her writing is beautifully poetic.

“I’ve always loved animals, and when I collected the body of the poor dead wolf, I stroked its blood-matted fur and felt a dull stab of sadness. It was a beautiful creature, and I ended its life by setting my roc on it. I know it seems contradictory, to love the animals you kill, but a lot of ruhkers feel the same.”
Fonda Lee, Untethered Sky

Ester befriends Darius, another ruhker. Their friendship revolves around their lives as ruhkers and their relationship with their birds. They become close and fly their birds together as often as they can. It is interesting they communicate little other than their shared love of being ruhkers. They develop a strong bond, and Ester and Darius’ friendship is a crucial part of the story.

Untethered Sky was my first read by Fonda Lee. Her books always came highly recommended, and now I can see why. I absolutely loved this book in so many ways. It brought back fond memories for me, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable story. It spoke to me as a person who worked with birds of prey, my love of nature, and our connection to nature. It was a novella, but brilliantly written to fully complete Ester’s story arc. I would highly recommend this book all readers, not just fans of fantasy.

BOOK SUMMARY (from NetGalley)
Ester’s family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and baby brother, leaving her with nothing but her father’s painful silence and a single, overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family.

Ester’s path leads her to the King’s Royal Mews, where the giant rocs of legend are flown to hunt manticores by their brave and dedicated ruhkers. Paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, Ester finds purpose and acclaim by devoting herself to a calling that demands absolute sacrifice and a creature that will never return her love. The terrifying partnership between woman and roc leads Ester not only on the empire’s most dangerous manticore hunt, but on a journey of perseverance and acceptance.

My thanks to TOR Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC for review
Find out more about Fonda Lee on her website: https://www.fondalee.com/
Purchase Untethered Sky on Amazon

Fonda Lee is the author of the epic fantasy Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City, continuing in Jade War, and concluding in Jade Legacy. She is also the author of the science fiction novels ZeroboxerExo and Cross Fire, and two novellas, the Green Bone Saga prequel The Jade Setter of Janloon, and the upcoming Untethered Sky.

Fonda is a winner of the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and a four-time winner of the Aurora Award (Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award), as well as a multiple finalist for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Oregon Book Award. Her novels have garnered multiple starred reviews and appeared on Best of Year lists from NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. Jade City has been translated in a dozen languages, named to TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Fantasy Books of All Time, and optioned for television development.

She has also written acclaimed short fiction and been an instructor at writing workshops including Viable Paradise and Clarion West. Fonda is a former corporate strategist and black belt martial artist who loves action movies and Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Canada, she currently resides in the Pacific Northwest.

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