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‘Untethered Sky’ Review: A Fantasy Novella that Falls Short

3 Stars

Cover of Fonda Lee's "Untethered Sky."
Cover of Fonda Lee's "Untethered Sky." By Courtesy of Macmillan Publishing
By Rachel A. Beard, Contributing Writer

Fonda Lee, who made a name for herself as the author of the fantasy series “The Green Bone Saga,” released “Untethered Sky” on April 11, a novella that follows a hunter and her bird on a quest for revenge. Unfortunately, Lee fails to live up to her reputation in her newest work, as “Untethered Sky” falls short due to its lack of an interesting main character and proper world-building. This is a true disappointment, as the book’s great highlights are overshadowed by its shortcomings.

“Untethered Sky” is a fantasy adventure that follows the story of Ester, a young woman who dreams of becoming a ruhker — one of the elite hunters who track and kill the deadly, human-eating manticores that plague her kingdom. Despite the fact that ruhking is rarely done by women, Ester is determined to prove herself. Her motivation is fueled by the tragic loss of her mother and younger brother, who were killed by manticores when she was just a child. Ester is tasked with training Zhara, a fearsome and powerful young roc, to help her hunt the manticores. Along with her friends Darius and Nasmin, Ester is given the opportunity to join the most ambitious mission ever assigned to ruhkers: The Great Hunt.

Ester’s determination to become a ruhker is admirable, but her character feels somewhat one-dimensional. Her singular focus on becoming a ruhker leaves her personality underdeveloped and uninteresting. Although she demonstrates bravery and determination in hunting the manticore that killed her family, her character lacks the depth necessary to make her goal emotionally satisfying. Overall, “Untethered Sky” would have benefited from a more multifaceted portrayal of her personality — for example, a more extensive exploration of her strong connection with nature, which the book alludes to but never handles in depth.

Although Esther’s character was somewhat lacking, the character of Darius — one of Ester’s closest friends and her love interest throughout the novella — is more nuanced and interesting, despite the romantic plot being underdeveloped. Like Ester, Darius is consumed by his desire to become a successful ruhker, but what makes his character more lifelike is his evident love for his roc. Although Ester loves Zhara, Darius’s bond with his roc, Minu, is palpable throughout the pages, creating a touching connection between roc and human that was less present in the relationship between Ester and Zhara.

Although “Untethered Sky” offers some strong moments and characters, the overall plot is somewhat uninteresting. The story’s focus on the Great Hunt and Ester’s aspiration to become a ruhker, though providing a clear goal for the characters, makes the plot feel somewhat formulaic and predictable. The book’s occasional twists and turns are not enough to fully captivate the reader’s attention. Additionally, the world-building is lackluster, leaving many unanswered questions about Ester’s kingdom and its culture. While the concept of the ruhkers and their rocs is intriguing, the setting and political tensions are not well-explored. This could be due to the brevity of the novella, but the story would have benefited from a more complete understanding of its world and culture.

Despite its shortcomings, “Untethered Sky” includes several standout scenes, such as the brutal murder of Ester’s mother and brother at the beginning of the novella. This scene is expertly crafted, evoking intense emotions of grief, fear, and horror. Lee’s decision to include unsettling details adds to the situation’s visceral realism and heightens the impact of the tragedy and the horror a young Ester must have felt. This scene serves as a gripping introduction to the story and expertly establishes Ester’s motivation for becoming a ruhker. It is a testament to Lee’s skill that this scene remains vividly etched in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.

“Untethered Sky” introduces some fascinating concepts and creatures, most notably the rocs at the center of the story, as well as some emotionally powerful scenes. However, the novella fails to do these concepts and scenes justice as its underwhelming main character and world-building ultimately drag the story down.

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