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Monday, May 15, 2023

Review: The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao (reviewed by Shazzie & Mihir)


Order The Surviving Sky HERE
OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Kritika H. Rao (she/her) is a science-fiction and fantasy writer, who has lived in India, Australia, Canada and The Sultanate of Oman. Kritika’s stories are influenced by her lived experiences, and often explore themes of consciousness, self vs. the world, and identity. She drops in and out of social media; you might catch her on Twitter or Instagram @KritikaHRao. Visit her online at

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: High above a jungle-planet float the last refuges of humanity—plant-made civilizations held together by tradition, technology, and arcane science. In these living cities, architects are revered above anyone else. If not for their ability to psychically manipulate the architecture, the cities would plunge into the devastating earthrage storms below.

Charismatic, powerful, mystical, Iravan is one such architect. In his city, his word is nearly law. His abilities are his identity, but to Ahilya, his wife, they are a way for survival to be reliant on the privileged few. Like most others, she cannot manipulate the plants. And she desperately seeks change.

Their marriage is already thorny—then Iravan is accused of pushing his abilities to forbidden limits. He needs Ahilya to help clear his name; she needs him to tip the balance of rule in their society. As their paths become increasingly intertwined, deadly truths emerge, challenging everything each of them believes. And as the earthrages become longer, and their floating city begins to plummet, Iravan and Ahilya’s discoveries might destroy their marriage, their culture, and their entire civilization. 

FORMAT/INFO: The Surviving Sky is expected from Titan Books on 4th April 2023. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS(SHAZZIE): I was interested in reading this book because I like to grab any South Asian inspired fantasy tales, and consider it my absolute privilege to have read a very early review copy. I am happy to report that it is a new favourite, and that I will purchase a physical copy so that it can occupy a special place on my bookshelf.
If I were to describe it badly, I would say that it is about a married couple trying to save both their relationship, and a flying city held up with plant magic. It is a futuristic, dystopian, ecological, science fiction fantasy that focuses as much as the relationship between the two protagonists, Ahilya and Iravan, as they try to make their marriage work, as it does on the survival of mankind in this setting.

This review will discuss my reading experience in a slightly unconventional flow. There is a lot that can be said about this book, but I will try to address, in my review, the following - first, the relationship between the protagonists, and only next, the premise and the world-building as well as I can manage, followed by my thoughts on the magic system, and finally, what you might be able to expect with respect to your personal reading experience. 

When I read the first few chapters, I was immediately struck by the thought of how refreshing it is to read about a relationship that focuses on a couple in a who have been married for over a decade. Kritika very clearly means their marital life to be an depiction of a couple wanting the best for each other individually and their relationship, but also one that examines the friction that can be caused by one of them being handed all the privilege possible, and the other seen as having little to no value in their chosen pursuit. They don't enable each other, but they do accept that the other is very competent with their job. They eventually work together despite their troubles, and this leads to a couple of chapters from either perspective that were written well enough to steer me toward considering each of their feelings and opinions as compelling as the opposite.

I firmly believe that the cover of this book is a wonderful choice, and a great way to help visualise the unique choice of setting for the book. The world-building here is clearly the winning factor for me, and this will likely be what most readers find the most intriguing. From chapter one, we are introduced to this clever and creative world. The ecological threat that humanity faces here, is similar to that in N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. The earth is prone to constant fits of rage that make it hard to survive on the ground, but here, humanity takes a different route survival. They take to the skies and rely on plant-based magic that a few people are gifted with, and hence they are valued the most, due to their part in keeping their communities safe.

I can't say much in detail about the magic system involved, without giving a lot away. It is a soft magic system this far, but not one that is without consequence. It heavily dictates a large part of the way the story unfolds. Just like the setting, when a certain idea of concept is discussed more than once, Kritika ensures that she adds an extra layer, making the ideas used not just easy to follow, but also evolve slowly, as the characters find out more about their world and history, and all of this is driven by their necessity and desperation to try to protect their community from the imminent threat they face.
"This was always our destiny. We were always each other's completion, each other's ruin. "

A large part of this book is influenced by Hindu-philosophies and mythologies. If read carefully enough, it will not be hard to understand what the author refers to, in certain parts of the book.The ideas of duty, destiny, rebirth, consciousness and intent are embedded into the story and the culture of the community, along with nature playing a very large part in dictating how species survive and interact with each other. Readers familiar with Indian classic music will find an extra element of appeal among the pages. What is dizzyingly remarkable is how everything in this book has an underlying theme of duality, one of the most prevalent notions in the Hindu philosophies. The world is described in a way that makes it feel both contained, but also expansive at the same time. The civilisation seems to be advanced enough to survive in the sky, but sustains itself based on arcane technology. Both the protagonists in the book are good for each other in some ways, but equally bad in others. All the aspects of the book that have been discussed in this review both stand out on their own, but are, at the same time, extremely tightly coupled in their evolution throughout the story, with the promise of a lot more to come in the sequel.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): The Surviving Sky is Kritika H. Rao’s debut book and the worldbuilding in the story is one of the best that I’ve ever read in a SFF debut. The story is set on a planet that has an incredible destructive event called Earthrage, which basically makes it impossible for the denizens of the planet to survive on its surface. The people have started living on floating sky cities that are powered by plants and the people known as Architects who perform psychic manipulation to keep the cities afloat. This scenario is quite unique and the author beautifully sets this premise by opening the readers within and then cleverly showcases the readers all of it.

As my colleague Shazzie mentioned about the worldbuilding, this book is absolutely brilliant in its depiction of a world that’s unique and quite dangerous. There’s quite a of lot of Hindu mythology mixed into this world from the Yaksha-animal hybrid creatures to the Rudra beads to certain words like Ashram, ragas etc. This is quite fantastical and for south Asian fantasy SFF readers, this is such an incredible breath of fresh air. The story basically focused on two main POV characters Ahilya and Iravan who are very, very intelligent people but incredibly complicated and very much angry with each other.

These characters are what drive the story and the author presents both of their viewpoints. One one hand, we have the architects who are crucial for the survival of all human beings. But on the other hand, their sense of superiority is troubling and everyone else feels that. Ahilya with her archaeology background has found all of this very troubling and I found her name to be very interesting mythologically. For fun, check out who Ahilya was in the epic of Ramayana. The parallel between that mythologically Ahilya and the Ahilya of Nakshar and how it plays out vis-a-vis her husband is interesting.  The author really makes us invested in to what these two are truly about. Their anger towards each other is explored solidly and we the readers can see the complexities that tie them together and yet push them away.

For me the story is all about characters and the world collapse that’s upcoming. However the plot pace isn’t of the quicksilver kind, it keeps building up bit doesn’t quite conclude in the spectacular fashion that it was intended. I would have loved for it to be more action-packed given the potential of the gigantic Yaksha creatures and I really hope that the sequels play up more on that angle. I have to be clear though, that this is purely subjective and is purely my opinion.

The Surviving Sky is an incredible debut that fuses Hindu mythology with incredible worldbuilding that rivals the best of Sanderson. Kritika H. Rao is an incredible talent and I for one, can’t wait to see what the sequels bring.

CONCLUSION (SHAZZIE): How you enjoy your read of this book might be different. The universal audiences will find a tale that is unique and creative. The desi readers will likely enjoy this on a different level, since it contains nods to many well known mythical beings they're familiar with, along with ideas so commonly discussed in their culture. No matter what group you belong to, this is a reading experience that is incalculably enjoyable, creatively built, thoroughly immersive, and just like a majority of concepts in Hindu philosophy, thought-provoking and incredibly hard to distill.



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