Ben Gold lives in dangerous times. Two generations ago, a virulent disease turned the population of most of North America into little more than beasts called Ferals. Some of those who survived took to the air, scratching out a living on airships and dirigibles soaring over the dangerous ground.
Ben has his own airship, a family heirloom, and has signed up to help a group of scientists looking for a cure. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, especially with a power-hungry air city looking to raid any nearby settlements. To make matters worse, his airship, the only home he’s ever known, is stolen. Ben must try to survive on the ground while trying to get his ship back.
This brings him to Gastown, a city in the air recently conquered by belligerent and expansionist pirates. When events turn deadly, Ben must decide what really matters—whether to risk it all on a desperate chance for a better future or to truly remain on his own.
I was excited to learn about Falling Sky, Rajan Khanna’s debut novel. I’ve really enjoyed Khanna’s short fiction in the past and he’s also one of my favourite narrators over at the Escape Artists podcasts. In addition, Falling Sky just seemed like a really cool story. It was. On the relatively short side – my ARC clocked in at 261 pages – the story still managed to cover plenty of ground, yet never felt rushed.
For the setting of his story, Khanna combines a post-apocalyptic America with steampunk sensibilities, which makes for an interesting mix. The virus that turns people into Ferals is frightening and with recent outbreaks in mind, quite timely as well. With the Bug, as the virus is called, Khanna has created a form of zombies that, while scary, I can actually read about without nightmares, which puts him in a relatively exclusive club together with David Towsey. Humanity has taken to the skies in an effort to flee contagion and the Ferals and built actual floating cities. These cities feel almost like frontier town communities, as they were in the Old West, with gun slingers, gangs, and bars, and every man and woman for themselves. Life in these towns is primarily about survival, which is a trait they share with the novel’s protagonist Ben.
Ben Gold is Falling Sky’s protagonist, but I’m not sure whether he is also its hero; that role might actually belong to Miranda, the scientist he’s hired to protect. I loved Ben. His attachment to his airship the Cherub was wonderful, as she isn’t so much an airship as she is his home and his one remaining tangible link to his father. Ben is absolutely selfish in his desire to survive. But then the Bug only reinforces the need for this as it is transmitted through bodily fluids. The way Khanna has his characters interact with each other and their environment, always staying completely wrapped up, keeping their distance from unknown humans, rarely allowing for physical contact, all serve to emphasise the terror and danger human contact forms. This makes Miranda and her scientist friends even more unique as they not only strive to find a vaccine, they actually hope to cure the Bug. And to cure the Bug Miranda is willing to risk her life time and again, because she believes this is the right thing to do. Hence my statement that Miranda might just be the true hero of the story.
Over the course of the novel Ben slowly realises he can’t go through life without forming attachments. One would say that Ben’s bond with Miranda is the main reason for him letting down his guard, but I would argue that his meeting with the horse rancher Viktor and the time he spends with him is even more crucial in Ben’s changing attitudes. Viktor’s kindness and selfless humanity serve to disarm Ben’s distrust. Similarly, the connection he forms with the people he saves early on in the novel, when he performs an act of altruism that surprises even Ben himself, shows him that helping others sometimes also helps yourself. Ben’s slowly crumbling walls and the painful realisations he must go through were very well drawn and I believed the way Khanna developed Ben, it felt genuine and it made it very easy to root for him.
When the Cherub is stolen during a raid on the Core, the scientific complex where Miranda works and lives, Ben sets out to get her back, in the process discovering a larger conflict encompassing the raiders, Gastown, and a mysterious, isolated community out on the edge of nowhere. While I enjoyed this aspect of the story, Ben’s arc and his developing relationship with Miranda were what really made the story shine for me. From his short fiction I knew Khanna was a talented author, but with Falling Sky Khanna has successfully made the leap into longer fiction. Falling Sky is a solid debut for Khanna, with an interesting world and characters I hope he’ll return to in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.