Book Review: Asrian Skies (Shadows of War) by Anne Wheeler

Asrian Skies

Asrian Skies by Anne Wheeler, a science fiction psychological fiction character-driven novel. Very real, true protagonist. Strong, well-rounded female protagonist. Loved this book. Wish I read it long ago.Series: Shadows of War, #1

Author: Anne Wheeler

Genre: Science Fiction

Book Description:

Avery Rendon is weeks away from realizing her dream as a Commonwealth fighter pilot when planetary politics destroy her fledgling career before it begins. Grudgingly, she returns to her home planet of Asria, still hoping to break free of her royal family and the life of tedious policymaking they’ve planned for her. But Asria is still Asria, and after her almost-fiancé walks out on her, she’s not sure things can get much worse.

She’s wrong. When the Haederan Empire invades Asria, intent on rebuilding their interstellar domain, Avery becomes a target. She also becomes something else—a reluctant and naïve Commonwealth intelligence operative. It’s not long before she stumbles upon information that could change the course of the war, and suddenly she’s on the run, pursued by the Haederan secret police and desperate to deliver critical information to the Commonwealth before it’s too late.

Swept up in something more dangerous than politics or flying, Avery starts to wonder if her destiny lies somewhere closer to home. If the information she’s learned can turn the tide of the war. And if she’ll live to see the end of it all.

Rating: Thoughtful, Unique, Real Characters

Review, Part One (Trying Not to Spoil It):

Asrian Skies is the second sci-fi book I’ve read (and thoroughly enjoyed) this year. In the last several months, actually. There’s faster-than-light travel, and other technological weirdness, but I seem to have grown more tolerant of that. Or maybe I didn’t really notice it, since most of the book is spent on a planet, and it doesn’t come into play most of the time.

What stood out most to me was Avery. The focus of the story is very much on who Avery is. She’s not bland, she’s not usual, and she’s refreshing in a lot of ways. There’s nothing about her that says ‘princess’, and everything about her that says ‘human being’. Her dream in life is to fly, and that felt real. I could feel her love of flying, her ambition to fly, in every flight scene (admittedly, there weren’t many). But that was not what was most important. Though I’m not sure why I’m saying that, since it’s part of an inseparable whole.

I loved her personality. Her stubbornness, her determination to live her own life. Something I really appreciated was the way that, once the Haederans take her planet, her response is handled. Her terror of death, terror of torture, terror of fear itself, is raw and almost paralyzing – side by side with a need, something deeper and truer than determination, to not sit by and do nothing. To help. Fight. Something. Terrified as she is, she can’t become an obsequious slave to that terror: it just isn’t in her. She can’t stop needling and defying her captors. She can’t let them rule her life or who she is.

Even when she’s scared most of the way to death of them.

That’s what I loved most of all. I really enjoyed her spirit. And it rings true to human experience, a message of hope and courage: no matter how great your fear, no matter how terrified you are, how deep that runs in your bones or turns your muscles to lead, that doesn’t mean you’re a slave to it. It’s there all through the book, but it comes out harsh and true when she’s in the cell, scared to death, shaking, paralyzed, terrified.

And she, basically, says no. No questions asked. No doubts. She doesn’t consider betraying what she’s been doing, however betrayed by her own mind and nerves she is, however terrified of what comes next.

And, for your information, it gets pretty dark – but not gory or detailed. The focus is on psychological torture, not physical. Which does not mean it’s an easy read, or even an easier read depending on your sensitivities. But there’s no gore, no physical details.

There’s also her relationships with people, people like Merrit, the man who loves her, the man she loves, but there are issues between them. The complexity of that, of the questions they have to face about what their love means and what they really want in life, was something that was well-done, thoughtful and realistic, I thought.

There were a few things, however, that I did not appreciate: one of them being that the surveillance technology just changed to be whatever was most convenient at the time, to give the characters the appropriate amount of challenge. A high-tech society that’s flying fighters and has found what’s supposed to be a technological way to “enter hyperspace” and faster-than-light travel, ought to have surveillance technology that is at very least the equal of what we have today. That is at very least the equal of what’s known about today. Possibly the most glaring case of this was an instance where Avery and someone else go out into a garden because the sound of a stream trickling by is supposed to mask whatever they’re talking about from the listeners installed everywhere.

Skies, no. No, no, no. Just no.

I wouldn’t have minded if the author invented a tachyon-anti-quark particulate shield or some other sci-fi weirdness to allow her characters to talk. But I would prefer that sci-fi books don’t give the impression that modern surveillance tech is substantively less than it is.

Here’s a short summary of some stuff that touches on spoilers, so I’m going to explore it in more depth in Part Two: there are a number of characters and situations handled with some real depth and thoughtfulness for psychology and emotions. However, there were some cases where I thought Avery shouldn’t have been as naïve as she was, given her background and training. Additionally, there were some situations that developed that leave me a little concerned as to how they will be developed in later stories. It’s not that there’s anything wrong. It’s just that I like a certain variety to the depth and complexity of characters explored. If this was the first book I’d read that had certain things in it, I’d be whooping for joy about how wonderful it is; as it is, I’m not at all unhappy about it. I quite frankly enjoyed some of it. I’m just a little concerned in some cases: if the series fulfills its promise, I will be so happy with it, but I’m not quite sure it’s a promise yet.

Also, there were some things having to do with Avery’s experience that I really hope are explored in future books because that would be … well, I’d really like. There are some situations that provide an opportunity for some really deep, and potentially insightful, explorations of certain issues.

And then here is another thing I like about this book: it doesn’t have any of that slightly anti-Christian, at least in the sense of ridiculing or dismissing the idea or belief in God or eternal life, or at least suggesting-that-it-might-be-wrong-to-believe-in-that, and at the same time, it’s not annoying or problematic in the way that a lot of Christian fiction can be. And it doesn’t make me think about the kinds of things I only want to deal with in rare moods that most Christian fiction does. Not that Christian fiction is the only kind that can point towards a belief in God or eternal life. But it’s most of what I find that does.

Review, Part Two (All the Spoilers That May Be):

Okay, some more detail on some things I tried to vaguely suggest.

The one of the top of my mind right now opens a ton of spoilers: one of the men who acts as a jailer/captor to Avery really tries to gain her trust, to get her to feel like he’s a friend. He’s really an intelligence officer, and he becomes her torturer. But one of the first things that happen between them is that he tells her that

He’ll wait for you as long as it takes . . . He wants reconciliation, Chase had contended that first night in the temple. She hated that the revelation had come from him. Always would.

But he’d been right.

Well, there. The snippet says it. It’s not a glaring thing, this theme about belief in eternal life and God, and Avery’s fear of death and doubt and disbelief, but it’s subtly there, and I enjoyed how it was handled. I appreciated the levels of her responses, her denial, and her final determination that there will be no more fear. Perhaps, on some level, because I relate to it myself … even to the paralyzing terror of torture (death, per se, is something I have not feared so greatly). And I appreciated the boldness to confront theme: the revelation had come from him. Always would. There’s a lot of emotion and depth to be explored there. And something that I think is very important to our experience as human beings living together in this world: maybe you believe in God and eternal life, maybe you don’t. But just because someone was a hypocrite, or meant only evil … doesn’t mean everything they said, or everything we learned from them, is wrong. But that can be something hard to … handle.

I won’t get into all my thoughts on the torture, but this is characteristic of the depth with which a lot is handled. And as it’s emotional and psychological, focusing on Avery’s doubts, her fears, her concerns, her sense of self – there’s definite thought for what it means to – to try, I guess. To know who you are. And to … I mean, these are things I spend a lot of time thinking about … but what is guilt? What is failure? A lie. Something used to cage you … to try to get you to believe it no longer matters. How much of life is … that? Man, reviews are supposed to be about a book, not my philosophical musings, but I like books that encourage those, or at least encourage me to put my musings into a communicable form (even if they’re darned hard to read, and that hardness doesn’t end when you close the last page). And how different is it? How much of what besets us, pulls us back, asks us to believe we’ve failed too much, that we’ve ruined everything and it longer matters to try, asks us to give up, or betray who we are or our friends … how much of that might not really be so different from psychological torture?

Does it matter whether you have betrayed your values or promises already? Guilt, whether true or false, is it anything other than a cage? Is the belief, or the fear, we’ve gone too far to ever be returned, whether the atrocities were ours to commit, or real, or not, either way, any way, is it anything other than a lie? A cage which, maybe, we don’t have to let constrain us? And instead to live in the freedom of the moment … to try, no matter how many times we’ve failed, or thought we failed, before?

“Although I can’t imagine why it would,” he continued, ignoring her tears. “You certainly weren’t afraid of me the night we met—the night you couldn’t wait to tell me how much you hated me. I’ve shown you quite a bit of leniency and consideration since then, given the circumstances. Much more than you deserve.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Yet you’re sitting here acting like I’m about to torture you.”

Torture.

The word hung in the air between them, intentional and harsh. Yes, he’d been decent to her, kind, even, but it had all been an act. Now he was scaring her half to death for his own entertainment while pretending he didn’t know he was doing it. She knew what came next, could only manage a whisper.

“You will.”

And here’s what I meant: terrified as she is, scared to death, there’s no doubt here, not even a hint of a question whether she should give in, whether she wants to give in. I … appreciate that. Some people may see it as inconsistent and clashing. In truth, it speaks to something very real. The experience that sees it as inconsistent and clashing is narrow and shallow. And … frankly … I wish I’d read this book so long ago. I wish I’d read Avery’s soul-bending terror, and yet the unquestioning reality of her conviction and spirit, so long ago. It might have saved me some of my own issues with fear. Not the terror, but I wish I’d known, I wish I’d had an image, that it was possible to be this terrified, to be this affected by your terror, and yet not to be a slave to the power that commands the terror.

And then the last things: in the book, Avery repeatedly is certain that Merrit is dead, and then discovers him to be alive. The last time, when she is certain he is alive, I a) don’t understand how she knows he is alive and b) am not sure how I feel about him being alive (if he is, indeed, alive). I think I will have to meet him again to know.

Then there’s Avery’s final decision, when she escapes from the Haederans a second time, that she’s not going to Ventana, she’s going back down to Asria as soon as she can. Even though that probably means she’ll never fly again. It felt a little like a too-convenient ending to the book. Though it also feels like the sort of flash decision that someone might make, and then deal with emotionally later. So I won’t know how I feel about this one until I read the next one, either.

And … finally. Feye. Feye is one of the Commonwealth intelligence people, except that he turns out to be a traitor, coerced into treason by threats against his sister who’s on one of the planets that Haedera took in their recent expansion. We discover he’s a traitor first, and then why. And then, that’s he not nearly as much of a traitor that he might have been: that he went so far as effectively committing suicide in order to keep certain secrets. So it is very, very complicated. And my feelings about this are: I like Feye’s story. But I don’t want all traitors to turn out to have reasons that almost everyone can relate to (whether or not they would make the same decisions is not the question; pardon my precision) for their treason. Sometimes. But not always. But Feye’s story is very … well, I liked it. And the message he leaves to Avery is heart-touching.

Hmm. I am definitely rambling. I loved Avery’s final escape flight in the Haederan fighter. It was daring and you can just feel the love of flying. I loved Avery all the way around. She just feels so real.

She stared at the stars outside, imagining what it would be like to float between them, consciousness lasting just long enough for the fear to take hold.

No.

No more fear, wasn’t that what she’d decided? There wasn’t anything to fear any longer. Certainly not something as temporary and fleeting as death. It was just another curtain to be pulled back. And who waited for her on the other side when the time came . . .

And my one thought: there is a saying, “There is nothing to fear except fear itself.” But what if we amended it? “Do not be afraid. Not even of fear.”

Skies, I want to ramble about my reactions to this and that, but no one who hasn’t read the book will understand, and it will just make this review even longer and more unwieldy than it already is.

Anne Wheeler’s Website

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