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Margin for Mercy


By Fran Wilde 

26 Apr, 2016

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2015’s Updraft is Fran Wilde’s debut novel; it is set in the same world as her 2013 short story A Moment of Gravity, Circumscribed.” This is a world where humans live confined to immensely tall bone towers; the ground has been lost, far below and long ago. Travel between the towers is by bridge and by wing. It is frequently perilous. Travelers are menaced, and sometimes culled, by invisible predators called skymouths.

Most of the people of the towers see their traditions and laws as their only protections against a dangerous world. The laws are upheld by the Singers, the autocrats who rule from aeries in the Spire. Woe to the person who willfully or otherwise breaks the law. Punishment will be swift and draconian.

As Kerit Densira finds out first hand.

Violating custom and law by attracting the attention of a skymouth is usually its own punishment. Kerit does so … and survives. This makes her a person of great interest to the Singers; they believe she has the potential to become a Singer herself. To do so, she must endure a strict training, which begins with removal to the Spire and total isolation from family and friends. Kerit feels that this price is too high and resists recruitment.

The Singers can be patient. Someone who violated the law once will probably break it again, given time. Eventually Kerit will do something the Singers can use against her. They don’t have to wait all that long.…

Kerit is given a choice between recruitment and death. She chooses life in the Spire over being cast down into the clouds. She finds that being a Singer trainee isn’t all bad. She is honing her talents and learning to fly. She even begins to make friends and allies among the Singers. 

She soon finds that while the Singers present a unified face to the people of the towers, this is merely a façade. Singers are riven by faction. Rumal, the current leader, must scheme incessantly to maintain control. 

If the Singers’ goal is stability, recruiting a wild card like Kerit was a terrible mistake. 


There really needs to be an entry in the Evil Overlords Handbook that warns aspiring overlords not to draft plucky teenage girls who have every reason to subvert their regime. This rarely ends well. Of course, trying to kill uncooperative Chosen Ones doesn’t work all that well either.

We do not know how this odd world came to be. The common folk and the Singers have different versions of history; who is to say that either one is correct? We do know that humans must maintain the towers if they are to survive, and that this maintenance is precarious. Resources are limited. The Singers are forced play for high stakes with very little margin for error … which is one reason that they are so resistant to change. Experimentation could be disastrous.

I expected that this book would be just one more young adult dsytopia, of the sort so popular of late. I was somewhat surprised to be reminded, rather, of classic 1960s and 1970s population bomb novels, books in which a tiny elite must manage limited resources and an ever-growing population. Which should trigger my traditional lament that no one, author or characters, seems to consider birth control an option. Lament not triggered. On the one hand, Kerit’s people have very few (although not zero) options, fewer than we do. On the other hand, it is possible that the Singers’ warnings of doom (population is out of control!!!) might be mistaken, or even cynically manipulated. What we see in the novel are families with one or two kids; that’s replacement level. 

Or perhaps the real problem is Singer mismanagement of the infrastructure; the author does not give us enough information to rule that out.

What I liked about Updraft is that the usual trope, Hard People Making Hard Calls: Shame about the Collateral Damage, is not presented sympathetically. SF has been all too eager to find justifications for stuffing people out the airlock; for solving Malthusian crisis with war; for responding to dysgenics with bold marketing schemes. Wilde eschews this venerable tradition. She helps us understand why the Singers have made the choices they did, but she does not stack the deck so that those ugly choices were the only possible ones. I hope that this defiance of tradition does not limit her career. 

Updraft can be purchased here.