Welcome to another co-review from the Intergalactic Academy! Below, you’ll find Sean and Phoebe giving their individual thoughts on Veronica Rossi’s Under the Never Sky. Whenever they’re in full agreement, you’ll only see a single opinion given; where they disagree, however, you’ll see two.
Aria is a teenager in the enclosed city of Reverie. Like all Dwellers, she spends her time with friends in virtual environments, called Realms, accessed through an eyepiece called a Smarteye. Aria enjoys the Realms and the easy life in Reverie. When she is forced out of the pod for a crime she did not commit, she believes her death is imminent. The outside world is known as The Death Shop, with danger in every direction.
As an Outsider, Perry has always known hunger, vicious predators, and violent energy storms from the swirling electrified atmosphere called the Aether. A bit of an outcast even among his hunting tribe, Perry withstands these daily tests with his exceptional abilities, as he is gifted with powerful senses that enable him to scent danger, food and even human emotions.
They come together reluctantly, for Aria must depend on Perry, whom she considers a barbarian, to help her get back to Reverie, while Perry needs Aria to help unravel the mystery of his beloved nephew’s abduction by the Dwellers. Together they embark on a journey challenged as much by their prejudices as by encounters with cannibals and wolves. But to their surprise, Aria and Perry forge an unlikely love – one that will forever change the fate of all who live UNDER THE NEVER SKY.
-cover and synopsis courtesy of goodreads.com
Sean’s Atmospheric Analysis: I like the cover of Under the Never Sky, I’m just not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. Are all those tendril things the Aether, or a representation of the outside world, or…something else entirely? The beams of light going into the sky are also a bit vague in terms of their iconography; they look more like something you’d see on a WWII novel.
Still, the cover is undeniably attractive, and I like that it’s more than just a blandly-photoshopped model staring off into the middle distance. Given the cover trends in YA, I feel like Rossi dodged a bullet here.
Phoebe’s Atmospheric Analysis: Dude, tendril things are totally the Aether. And the clear, light-beamy area is the Still Blue.
I do wish they’d put both Perry and Aria on this cover. He’s such a prominent character, in no way lesser than Aria, and I think he deserves cover time.
Planetary Class: Under the Never Sky has been referred to as a ‘dystopian’, but it really isn’t. Reverie isn’t a particularly restrictive society, nor are the prejudices of its people the result of top-down misinformation by a ruling class. Rather, I got the impression that everyone living in the Pods buys into their collective prejudices about the outside world. The story is more straight post-apocalyptic than anything else, which makes for a fairly refreshing change of pace.
Mohs Rating: Applied Phlebotenum as far as the eye can see! You’ve got your virtual ‘Realms’, your SmartEyes (which I can’t say I ever entirely understood), your mysterious Aether, and genetically enhanced super-senses. It’s all handled consistently, though, which makes this a 2 on the Mohs Scale.
Sean’s Planetary Viability: With great Phlebotinum comes great implausibility (or something), and Under the Never Sky is no exception. There are elements of Science-Fantasy here, particularly when it comes to the vaguely-described Aether and the aforementioned super-senses, but they’re grounded enough that they don’t clash too much with the novel’s science-fictional underpinnings.
Phoebe’s Planetary Viability: I suspect I was a little more bothered by the worldbuilding than Sean was–fridge moments abounded. Like, what was the Aether? How much space would be necessary for all those people walking around with SmartEyes on all the time? If they moved around, why is Aria described as sweating for the first time when outside her pod? What do they eat? Why did members of these two very disparate cultures speak the same language? Why would longer canines be linked to synthesisia-related super powers? All of this is pretty nitpicky, and the novel works if you don’t think to hard about it–but I was left with quite a few niggling questions.
Sean’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: So, quick question: am I the only one who thinks ‘SmartEye’ sounds like a rejected name for an Apple product? And that ‘Better than Real’ sounds like a corporate slogan rather than something coined by a government bureaucracy? There are a lot of weird little inconsistencies like that, and it’s not just in relation to Reverie’s society. Perry’s speech is peppered with odd expletives and slang terms, none of which sound as if they come from the same lexicon. It doesn’t help that his dialogue is otherwise almost indistinguishable from Aria’s, even though their cultures have been so isolated that they should have trouble even understanding each other.
Phoebe’s Xenolinguistical Assessment: While I agree with Sean about the iPad-ish “SmartEye,” the language here mostly worked for me. The slang of the Outsiders was more naturalistic, sensible for their society. Generally, I found the prose to be strong, clear and striking–a mostly effective use of the third person POV.
Sean’s Expanded Report: Under the Never Sky was something of an oddity for me. The world of YA science fiction has been extremely hit-or-miss lately, with the misses vastly outweighing the hits. There hasn’t been a whole lot of middle ground, which I’ve taken as a sign of a relatively immature genre.
Veronica Rossi’s much-anticipated debut has the slightly dubious honour of falling squarely into that middle ground. Objectively speaking, I can’t find a whole lot to fault her for; every criticism I can think of is neatly balanced out by at least one positive point, resulting in a book that I’ll probably have forgotten about entirely within a week.
Having said that, Rossi should be applauded for taking something that could have been dreadful and making it readable. The book has all the potential for soul-crushing mediocrity: a future where society is sharply divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ (in this case represented by people who live in protected Pods and people who live in tribal settlements on the outside, respectively), there’s an inevitable romance between Aria, who was kicked out of her Pod after learning one uncomfortable truth too many, and Perry, the ousted heir to the leadership of a powerful tribe, and there are Secrets Which Must Be Discovered. It could have been terrible…but it’s not. It’s just not particularly great, either.
I suspect my problem is that I never warmed to either Aria or Perry. Aria in particular is something of a non-entity, mostly because we’re introduced to her at the absolute worst point in her story. Instead of giving us a glimpse of what ‘ordinary’ life is like for her, Rossi throws us into the plot mere minutes before she is attacked, almost killed and then ejected from the only home she’s ever known. The only members of Aria’s social circle we see prior to the beginning of the plot are either killed or never heard from again, which makes it difficult in the extreme to get a handle on what she’s like when she isn’t traipsing through a barren wasteland. I never thought I’d say this, but some honest-to-god flashbacks would have been much appreciated.
Actually, that goes for the novel as a whole. I suspect Rossi has embraced the ‘hook the reader early or they’ll drop your book like a ton of bricks’ advice coming from agents and editors to such an extent that she was afraid to slow things down and let the reader develop a relationship with her world and its characters. For the record, I think this is horrible, horrible advice. Readers aren’t agents; they don’t have to develop ways of skimming through massive piles of submissions every day. There is nothing wrong with taking things easy and letting the reader bask in your world for a little while if your story warrants it – and Under the Never Sky definitely warranted it. Less ‘exciting’ chase scenes and more introspection/worldbuilding would have done wonders for it.
Of course, I’m distinctly in the minority here, since most people seem to have loved Under the Never Sky. If you’re a fan of YA SF who’s looking for something a bit meatier than the usual half-baked dystopian, you might like it just as much. At the very least, I can’t imagine too many people disliking it, so please do check it out.
Phoebe’s Expanded Report: When I was about halfway done with Under the Never Sky I IMed Sean with my ratings predictions. I guessed that he’d fall to the more negative side of neutral, while I’d cling to the more positive side of that divide. It seems I was right about Sean’s feelings, though my own reaction surprised me.
I must say that there are several significant problems with Under the Never Sky. Like Sean, I suspect that the story starts in the wrong place. We’re introduced to Aria after she’s ousted from Reverie. We don’t get to see the virtual Realms in which she spends her time until about halfway into the book, so it’s difficult to understand precisely how her life has changed. In light of this, and her general naivety, I took a very long time to warm up to her, and the pacing through the novel’s first half was quite slow. There were significant worldbuilding problems–the ominous Aether is never explained or even sufficiently described to be scary; the genetics of the both the Dwellers (who genetically modify themselves for stupid stuff like tans but not to solve more significant, but spoilery problems) and the Outsiders (who have super senses within certain family lines along with animalistic traits in individuals that seem unlikely to be so prevalent in such a limited population) didn’t quite gel for me; I had questions about language and the wider universe; I thought the names were silly and bizarrely hippie-ish (Paisley and Peregrine and Aria and Reef); a girl at the onset of menstruation is described as smelling like violets.
And yet I really, really enjoyed this book.
Of the two societies, that of the Outsiders is by far the fresher and the better described. It’s a bit like Russell Hoban’s neo-Iron Age society developed in the novel Riddley Walker. These are hunters, split into warring clans, who have short lives shaped by the meager existence they eke out. It was also surprisingly bad-ass. Our hero and love interest is tattooed and dreadlocked, wields a bow and has the reflective eyes of an animal.
His world–filled with knife-huntin’ guys who have super senses and pointy canines–reminded me a bit of the post-apocalyptic New Zealand glimpsed in the millennial teen show The Tribe. I’m a big fan of The Tribe, despite goofy plots and goofier face paint. It’s the type of world I’ve always very much wanted to see realized in a YA novel, and Rossi does a good job here capturing a cool, rusty, punky zeitgeist. There’s this extended scene where our heroine Aria learns knife fighting over the course of days, assisted by two rakish boys, and normally I would have found it a little indulgent but it was so cool that I just didn’t care.
That’s not to say that this is a shallow novel. It’s not. I’d contrasted it with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, a book that never quite won me over despite widespread popularity. Like Uglies, we’re given two societies, one techy, one not; both, here, are better described, with their own societal strictures, problems, and cultural norms. These norms intelligently inform the behaviors of the characters, who we get to know gradually, through strongly written, alternating narration.
Perry, our Outsider boy, was instantly sympathetic. His very human struggles with his brother, as well as his attachment to his young nephew, made him easy to identify with. I took longer to warm to Aria, but by the time she makes her first kill, she won me over as completely as she did Perry. Even better, I bought their romance. It was heartfelt, real, and realistically complex. They had great chemistry.
And overall, despite its flaws, I bought this book. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a very strong debut–the kind of world I’d love to visit, with a pair of characters who I wouldn’t mind being friends with after the apocalypse comes.