Book Review: Skylark by Meagan Spooner

Meagan Spooner
Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing Group, August 2012
ISBN 978-0-7613-8865-4
Also available as an ebook in various formats (Amazon now, other retailers to follow)

From the publisher—

Vis in magia, in vita vi.In magic there is power, and in power, life.

For fifteen years, Lark Ainsley waited for the day when her Resource would be harvested and she would finally be an adult. After the harvest she expected a small role in the regular, orderly operation of the City within the Wall. She expected to do her part to maintain the refuge for the last survivors of the Wars. She expected to be a tiny cog in the larger clockwork of the city.

Lark did not expect to become the City’s power supply.

For fifteen years, Lark Ainsley believed in a lie. Now she must escape the only world she’s ever known…or face a fate more unimaginable than death.

I have one complaint to make about this book—I waited much too long to read it so, yes, I’m complaining about myself.

Dystopia has become a frequent theme of fantasy (or science fiction, whichever genre you prefer to say), particularly in the young adult arena, and the more offerings I come across, the more I think are just average at best. The same thing happens with all fiction fads. Remember the early days of the badass female supernatural, whether she be vampire, werewolf, demon-hunter, etc., etc.? Those first books were fresh and intriguing and entertaining and then…everybody else decided to jump on the bandwagon. Now, we’ve become rather jaded and cynical and new authors wanting to enter this particular field have an uphill battle because we tend to stick to those authors who have been doing it so well since the beginning. A similar thing is happening in cozy mysteries where it’s the craft-or-hobby-or-employment-of-the-day. And now it’s happening with dystopia.

And that, my friends, is why I love this book and its author.  Meagan Spooner has crafted a story and a world that just flies above so many similar books available today. No, “similar” is not the right word because it really isn’t anything like any other.

First of all, we have a heroine who isn’t particularly strong in temperament or physique and she isn’t on a quest to save her world. She is, in fact, running away from what appears to be a dismal, horrifying fate and her only thoughts in the beginning are for herself. Actually, she isn’t always very smart and does some pretty dumb things. How refreshingly natural! Despite that, she doesn’t indulge in much self-pity and, brave enough to try to get herself out of the destiny others would decree for her, she forges on through all sorts of terrors and deprivations. Her journey to find safe haven in Iron Wood becomes one of self-discovery and, out of necessity, this teen matures beyond her years. Many of her childhood illusions will vanish like a wisp of smoke but magic is still all around and the future she’s seeking may not turn out the way she imagines. Perhaps best of all, Lark recognizes her own shortcomings and fiercely wants to be competent enough to take care of herself.

Second, no insta-love. You know what I mean if you read today’s young adult fantasy and science fiction and you can rejoice that it isn’t to be found in Skylark. Yes, there are hints and even some attachment, but Lark doesn’t fall madly for the handsome dude (which one?) who may or may not love her back. Perhaps that will come in the next book but that will be okay because it means Lark has waited more than a nanosecond to let the hormones take over.

Then there are the other characters, main and secondary. We meet the potential love interests, Oren and Kris, both of whom harbor secrets and still manage to be intensely appealing. The Architects control the City and are led by the Harvest Administrator, a woman who is oily and smarmy and as unfeeling as they come but still somehow intriguing. Friends Dorien and Tansy show Lark what humanity should be all about and Nix, a mechanical pixie that looks and acts something like a bug but can communicate, is one of the most original and loveable characters I’ve ever come across.

Ms. Spooner‘s worldbuilding is among the best I’ve seen. While we don’t yet know much about the magic wars that destroyed previous societies, the crafting of Lark’s world and what is outside the force field enclosing her city is meticulous. Much is left to the reader’s imagination but, at the same time, the details we learn through Lark’s eyes and intellect take us along the journey with Lark. Her fear of the sky she has never seen before comes across as though that fear were alive and only a good writer can create that kind of reader empathy. Another surprise is the combination of a kind of steampunk with a sort of faery element, a zombie-like threat and a large dose of magic. Taken by themselves, each of those is seemingly only a small part of the story but, taken together, they’re of huge importance.

The result of all this is a story that mesmerizes and chills the soul at one and the same time. Is it fantasy, science fiction, maybe even mystery? It’s all of those , really, and trying to label it would be shortsighted. Twists and betrayals, promises and friendships abound and a truth is revealed at the end that is, quite simply, breathtaking. I’m sorry I put off reading this ARC—about 3 months but, in fairness to myself, I didn’t know the publication date was pushed up two months from October to August—but I’m much sorrier that I have to wait so long for the second book in the trilogy, Shadowlark, due out next year, and then for 2014’s finale, The Leaden Sky. (Note: those titles may not be final.) If I still had my bookstore, I’d ask this wonderful author to trek a couple of hours down the road for a visit that would have thrilled our customers but that’s not going to happen so I’ll just have to tell everyone who’ll listen to READ THIS BOOK!.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2012.