Book Review: Take Back the Skies, Lucy Saxon (2014)

June 18th, 2014 12:07 pm by Kelly Garbato

Warning: epilogue may cause cursing, stabbiness, and bouts of patriarchy blaming.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Also, the second half of the review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Oh, Take Back the Skies. I really wanted to fall in love with you: deeply, madly, passionately. You had so much going for you: Space travel by way of grand, masted skyships. Steampunk elements in the form of clockwork mechas. Human experimentation resulting in human-robot hybrid killing machines. A plucky young heroine who crossdresses as a boy so that she can more easily navigate the confines of her patriarchal society. An equally young and plucky author – who cosplays, no less! and has a name right out of the Doctor Who ‘verse! – who wrote you as part of NaNoWriMo at the tender age of sixteen.

Your story begins on a promising note. To outsiders, Catherine Hunter is living a charmed life. Born into wealth and privilege, Catherine has it all: a closet brimming with expensive clothes, an extravagant mansion to call home, all the food she can eat (no small luxury in this wartime rationing), and immunity from the Collections (in which the government steals all but the eldest child in a family to power its war machine). But when her physically abusive father promises to betroth her to a boy she can hardly stand – let alone hope to love – Catherine runs away from home…with the blessing of her dying mother, herself the victim of a loveless political marriage.

Dressed in trousers, sporting newly shorn locks, and passing as a commoner boy named “Cat,” Catherine slips away to the shipyard, where she boards the best-looking skyship in the joint: the Stormdancer. Luckily, she finds a friendly crew on board; while they ostensibly trade in furs, Harry, Alice, Matt, Ben, and Fox also smuggle goods and sometimes even children evading the Collections. Even when they discover Cat’s ruse, they’re happy to let her stay; after all, they don’t buy into Anglyan aristocracy’s sexist notions that boys are “more useful” than girls. So far, so good.

After just a short time traveling with the Stormdancer, Cat comes to discover some painful truths that the Angylan government is hiding from it citizens. First and foremost, there is no war. After the disappearance of the Angylan monarchs eight years prior – King Christopher, Queen Mary, and the young Prince James – there was a brief war between the nations of Tellus – which Angyla lost. Only, the Angylan aristocracy neglected to inform the commoners. Shortly thereafter, they assumed control of the government and began stealing commoner children, supposedly to train and use as soldiers. But if there’s no war, what has become of all these disappeared kids?

Contrary to government newscasts, the now-free countries of Tellus – Siberene, Mericus, Dalivia, Kasem, and Erova – are prosperous; it is Anglya which suffers from its isolationism and oppression. During her visit to Siberene, Cat is shocked to find a wealthy and beautiful city teeming with life. She demands answers from her shipmates – and this is where your story starts go to sideways.

While Anglyan traders know full well the falsity of government propaganda, the aristocracy ensures their silence by threatening their families. Though the Stormdancer crew smuggles food and children when they can, somehow doing more – demanding more systemic and permanent changes – never crosses their minds. Until a fifteen-year-old runaway they’ve known for all of a week suggests it, that is. And once they’ve all agreed to sabotage the government, they spend exactly one day planning their attack. And it actually works! The disbelief is just too heavy to suspend.

Let’s talk about Cat and Fox for a minute. Even though he kind of comes off like a standard “bad boy” at first, at least he’s prickly with everyone, and not just Cat. Sure, maybe it’s a little puzzling to hear him say that girls are as capable as boys in one breath, and then expend all his energy trying to shield Cat from danger in the next, but this could be attributed to his feelings for her and not her gender specifically. Plus she protests this paternalism at every turn, so that’s a good thing. Their romance is cute at first, but escalates at an alarming rate until two kids who just met a week earlier are declaring their undying love for one another. It’s a bit much, don’t you think?

As others have pointed out, the age difference makes it a bit creepier: Cat is fourteen, going on fifteen, while Fox is seventeen (give or take?). Two or three years isn’t much to adults, but teenagers? More like dog years.

Then again, you seem to have a more general problem with properly aging your characters. Cat is a fifteen-year-old who acts and sounds like a twelve-year-old but frequently finds herself in situations befitting a seventeen-year-old+. Fox, too, behaves much younger than his seventeen years. Perhaps that’s why their age difference didn’t bother me as much as it did other readers: I often pictured these two as the same age. In this vein, you read much more like a middle grade book than YA. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Just saying.

And just what is up with your love of monarchies? At every turn, you hold the (hereditary, seemingly absolute) Anglyan monarchy up as preferable to the aristocracy (also apparently heredity and absolute) that currently runs the government – without positing a third way of doing things. For example, why not have Queen Mary run for president instead of re-installing her as the head of an unelected, unaccountable, absolutism form of government? That would tidily wrap up the future King James problem and let Cat off the hook. It must be an English thing that escapes this Merican’s understanding. Kings and Queens, how Medieval.

* begin spoilers! *

Which brings us to the ending. Oy, the ending. The epilogue nearly made me chuck you across my living room, you know. We just spent 300+ pages getting to know and love this fierce, independent, brave heroine, and in five tidy pages you erase everything that makes Cat, Cat. The impetus for her fleeing Angyla to begin with was an impending marriage to a boy she didn’t love, to fulfill a responsibility she neither wanted nor asked for. The ending brings us full circle, with Cat marrying an arrogant, insensitive, creepy stalker prince for the supposed good of her country. (James? Seriously? He comes off like one of the guys of OK Cupid. A million nos.)

And you don’t even provide us with a compelling reason why Princess Cat is the Only Good Thing – or even the Best Thing – for Angyla. At the time of their marriage, Cat and James are just seventeen. Assuming she had James when she was around 20, Mary can’t quite be 40 years old yet; and assuming good health and a normal life span, Mary most likely has another 20 or 30 years left of her reign. Methinks that’s plenty of time for James to find a suitable wife.

In her internal monologue, Cat insists that she will be a friend to James – nothing more. How then does she expect to continue the monarchy, if not by having his baybeez? Doesn’t a childless marriage defeat the purpose of marrying into a monarchy? (I guess Cat could go the turkey baster route, but I doubt that you are that kind of book!)

Why is Angyla Cat’s duty? Hasn’t she done enough? Sacrificed enough? Her father wasn’t even the mastermind behind the whole murderous plot, so that should negate any (misplaced) responsibility she felt to begin with.

And why would the crew of the Stormdancer – who seem to support, if not encourage the marriage – steer Cat so wrong? “He’ll take care of you” – wtf, Harry! What happened to the whole equality schtick? I think that Cat has made it clear that she doesn’t need a man to take care of her, thank you very much. I just don’t buy it.

My greatest disappointment, Take Back the Skies, is that you started off with rather progressive gender politics and then did a complete 180. Up until the last paragraph, I expected you to pull some Runaway Bride style hijinks, but no: despite her protests, you force Cat into a marriage she doesn’t want (but presumably will, eventually. Oh Cheesus tell me Cat doesn’t fall for James in the sequel!) I picked you up so that I could watch Cat take back the skies – not the throne!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Take Back the Skies, Lucy Saxon (2014)”

  1. Book Review: The Ugly Princess: The Legend of the Winnowwood, Henderson Smith (2014) » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] expect someone to give up their bodily autonomy by acquiescing to an unwanted marriage! See, e.g., Take Back the Skies.) – but she’s madly in love with Prince Victore, and wouldn’t it be a shame for […]

  2. 2014 Real Book Challenge: June Roundup » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] Take Back the Skies by Lucy Saxon (2014); reviewed here […]

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