2023’s Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee is an upcoming secondary-world fantasy novella.
Having won a position as a roc wrangler, Ester discovers that the reality can be very different from the dream.
Ester’s parents were delighted when they finally had a son who survived infancy. Tragedy followed happiness when the baby son and his doting mother were killed by a rampaging manticore. The surviving father and daughter were left to deal with crippling grief.
Ester dealt with her grief by determining to become a roc handler (rocs being the main predator of manticores). Ester worked hard as an assistant handler and soon enough was promoted to handle roc Zahra.
Zahra proves to be a challenging charge. Even rocs raised by humans will often ignore their handler’s commands. Sometimes they will turn on their handler (which does not end well for the handler). Ester must be constantly wary.
Ester also faces danger when she and Zahra are out hunting manticores. Usually a roc can take down a manticore, but accidents happen.
Will Zahra remain compliant? Will Zahra and Ester survive repeated combat?
As is my wont, I wondered about the ecology of humans, rocs, and manticores. Manticores appear to prey primarily on humans. Have they always done so? or is this a side-effect of post-agricultural human population boom and the extinction or domestication of the manticore’s former prey? I of course thought immediately of Hieraaetus moorei1, the now extinct Haast’s eagle, which preyed on the moa until humans wiped out the moa. Was there a time when Haast’s eagles cast their beady predator eye on humans?
Some readers may wonder why the humans in this novel do not simply exterminate the manticores. The humans are working on it. However, the book’s setting seems to be Bronze or Iron age; effective weapons are expensive, soldiers cannot be everywhere, and your average peasant in the street is very badly equipped to fend off a manticore.
Manticore attacks aren’t common but they are extremely memorable. People remember a dozen peasants slain by rampaging manticores longer than they do a hundred dead during winter food shortages or a thousand stillbirths. As well, manticores are the sort of problem a government can address in a visible, popular way.
One may guess from the opening line that the story will be a tragedy. One reads to find out how this plays out. Ester has suffered grievous loss, but she is not without affections and pleasures. Will she survive her job? Will she quit? Lee effectively keeps the reader wondering.
1: If we want to be picky about it (which of course I do) the extinct Haast’s eagle had more in common with this novel’s rocs than with the manticores.