Long-time followers might notice something odd about this review. “Starving Reviewer, there’s a Book 2 in that title scrawl and you never do book series out of order,” they no doubt cry. “You’re supposed to take the courses of a literary meal in order!”
You’re right, my literary foodies, but I was told expressly by the chef that each book was encapsulated into their own stories, much like the pulps of old and like some other meals I have already reviewed. Steeled with the chef’s surety, I relented and took my knives to this sci-fi feast. Was the chef right? Is it a truly stand-alone dining experience or was I left wanting?
Before we find out, let’s recount the laws of the Starving Reviewer, gouged into the very stone of the restaurant floor:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
No. Just no. There is a self-contained plotline, yes, but any good serial book volume should have one. However, I frankly always felt a bit empty as I ate through Fell, like the flavors just weren’t right without the balance of the first course. Terms, places, species, technologies, and more are bandied about early and often with rare explanations. While there’s enough ‘baseline’ science fiction flavor to get by, there’s much of the spice gone, brought on by a lack of understanding and this permeates every layer of the cake.
Well, you may ask, what if I can put that aside? How about the merits of the meal ignoring that? I don’t think you can but, if you do read this solo and can do so, things are far from perfect.
To be more than fair, there is the seed of greatness here. There is some sound story structure, some developed characters, and some great imagery in places. On a macro level, the key plot points mostly form a solid framework to build on. The devil, however, is in the details and that’s where Fell starts to fall, especially in the second half.
This meal is founded on its space battles, fleets of ships whirling and dancing through the inky black of space in mortal combat. Now, there’s two main schools of thought in sci-fi: ‘hard’ sci-fi that tries to be as realistic as possible in depicting its tech and space opera, which takes a more cinematic take on things. Yes, I know there’s more, but this is enough specification for now. Fell can’t seem to entirely make up its mind what it wants to be in that regard and that hurts its depiction of battle. You never know what capabilities all of these ships thrust at you can do. One moment, a ship can be talked up as nigh-invincible only to be destroyed suddenly the next. How the technologies interact is never made clear (in this volume at least) and we are never even told just what ‘stellar speed’ (the speed scale used) means. The real kicker when it comes to the space combat depictions is the lack of three-dimensional description. It all feels like the battles are on a flat plane and that just feels sour in my mouth.
What’s really fascinating is that this meal’s description fails to mention a major component of the book itself and that is religion. A significant component of the last half of the book is centered around prophecy and scripture from an alien race that is extremely similar to parts out of the Bible (especially Revelations). There is a literal Crystal Dragon Jesus (okay, maybe glowing energy Jesus) and a heavy, HEAVY dollop of Christian philosophy enters the book with this prophetical component. Now, I have nothing against this sort of thing at all … books are a great way to explore concepts of faith and religion … but there’s a strange combination of heavy-handedness and veiled intent going on here. The prophecy part is quite literal in the book’s world (the heavy-handedness) but there are no connections made between any of the human characters and the obvious and extensive similarities between this alien faith and their own. It’s as if the chef doesn’t want a casual reader to know about them. I don’t know but it seemed both like someone hitting me with a Jesus-painted 2 x 4 while putting a thin, almost see-through plastic bag over the end in an attempt to hide it from me in the process.
While I found these things sat uneasy with my tastebuds, what finally put me off of Fell were continuity errors and a lack of writing consistency in the second half. It is like the chefs put all their effort in the first 30 minutes of baking, then were so tired they simply went through the motions for the last 30 minutes. Inconsistent characterization, characters being referenced in a scene they couldn’t actually be in, name and word mix-ups, someone decapitating someone with the scabbard they drew from their sheath (parse that a moment and you’ll get it), and a lack of comprehension on the science part of the science fiction are really what left my taste buds battered and bruised by the end of the meal.
It’s very possible that reading the first book first could solve some of these problems, especially when it comes to the technology and alien aspects. All were apparently major elements of the first book … but I was assured that this was a stand-alone volume. That being the case, I have to review it AS a stand-alone.
So, with all of that being said, After the Sky Fell still has strong potential but the flavor is killed by unimaginative space battles, hidden-but-obvious religious seasoning, and a very inconsistent second half. It certainly does not stand alone. If you’re interested in the book from what you’ve read, definitely start with the first one … don’t believe what you may hear otherwise. Still, I hope that the chefs take this back to the kitchen and do some work on it, as it could be turned into a fantastic piece of space opera with some tender loving care.
FINAL VERDICT: ** (Strong potential killed by unimaginative space battles, hidden-but-blunt religious seasoning, and inconsistent quality!)