2023’s The Surviving Sky is the first volume in Kritika H. Rao’s science fantasy Rages series.
Ahilya may be her world’s first archaeologist. As such, she faces many challenges. She has to invent the field from scratch. The Architects who run society see no particular need for anyone to double-check the official histories and are disinclined to provide outsiders with assistance in such an endeavor. Finally, living as she does in a flying city far above the often-violent surface of her world, gaining access to archaeological sites, if such survive the frequent natural calamities, is nearly impossible.
At least she has her disintegrating marriage to Iravan to distract her.
The technology on which continued human existence depends is one part biotechnology to one part psychic powers. Architects use trajection to control the ashrams, vast tree-cities. For the most part, cities like Ahilya’s Nakshar remain at high altitudes, far above the earthrage-torn surface of the world, touching down during the rare quiescent moments.
Kakshar’s council is (somewhat grudgingly) open to non-architects. Ahilya has her eye on an open council seat. A doting husband might support his spouse in such matters. Architect Iravan prefers to focus on his own career. His attitude towards Ahilya’s scientific and political ambitions is best described as patronizing. One might say he is actively sabotaging her. It’s not terribly surprising that the pair barely speak.
Among the Architects’ primary coping skills, a consensus that their approach works, that deviation among Architects must be ruthlessly eliminated, that it is best for non-architects to know their place, and that the best response to disquieting information about the world is to ignore it in the hopes it is a passing anomaly.
Whereas Ahilya struggles on in the face of indifference and obstruction, her husband faces even worse challenges. Iravan is convinced that there is something of which only he is aware interfering with trajection. If it is not identified and a suitable countermeasure arrived at, civilization may be doomed. This is just the sort of wild claim that the so-called Ecstatics make. Were he to be identified as such, the consequences for Iravan will be dire.
If Iravan is correct, the consequences for Nakshar will be much worse.
This novel draws on cultural, religious, and mythological sources about which my ignorance is nigh-comprehensive. I should also note that, as is my wont, I was often distracted by wondering just how this particular society had evolved. They had a toolkit, pragmatic and theoretical, that had worked so far1; it must have taken a fair bit of experimentation to get there.
Because their knowledge was so dearly won, the Architects tend to be conservative. Their society survives on the edge. A sufficiently large misjudgment (such as allowing a deranged Ecstatic to run amok) could send the city falling to the surface. Thus, when problems arise, they stick to the tried and true. This has always worked. Until the day it doesn’t.
The Architects are also socially conservative. They distrust lone geniuses. They distrust unmarried Architects. Divorce (toward which Ahilya and Iravan are edging) is socially unacceptable. I wondered how many Architects and their spouses are trapped in terrible marriages2; the book makes it clear that there is at least one couple so trapped.
Readers are likely to find Ahilya more sympathetic than Iravan. Readers may find themselves seized by a desire to repeatedly smack Iravan firmly on the back of the head. Resist as smacking is hard on books and harder on e‑readers.
While I had some problems with the length (blame reading this novel during a particularly busy dance season at work), the novel always held my interest.
Final note: the plot involves problems that the old Architect toolkit isn’t equipped to solve. I can’t tell you what they are; that would be a spoiler. But if you do pick this up, expect a science-fantasy puzzle story.
1: Readers may wonder how humanity survived their world long enough to create the cities. Well, I wondered.
2: The city hasn’t developed anything like marriage therapists. It is very possible the reason is that in this particular city, people think if they don’t mention bad things out loud, the bad thing will go away. Good luck with that!