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The Sky Lords by John Brosnan
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The future Earth of John Brosnan’s The Sky Lords is a uniquely nasty and colourful place, and I’ve visited it before.

I read the second book in this trilogy when I was thirteen – twenty-five years ago – and loved it. It took me a quarter of a century to track down book one - The Sky Lords - and return to Brosnan’s ruined Earth. I did so with some trepidation - revisiting the fondly remembered books of our youth often ends in disappointment – but I’m glad I did.

This isn’t your standard post-apocalypse Earth, your The Road style nuclear winter, or a Ballard-esque climate-change wracked, sun-blasted greenhouse. Brosnan’s future is a pungent and squalid world dripping with fungal decay, where a high-tech humanity has been largely reduced to almost medieval level, supplemented by the few surviving bits of old-science gear left functioning.

Designer fungi, plagues, animals and plants, all made uniquely vicious by genetic engineering , have blighted the Earth, turning it into an inhospitable wasteland filled with hungry terrors. What fertile areas remain are being encroached upon, the fungus and its denizens forcing humanity into smaller and smaller safe areas each year.

Unfortunately for the people struggling to survive on the blighted Earth, they also have to contend with threats from the air. Among the surviving technical wonders are a dozen or more gigantic, mile-long airships known as Sky Lords. Once built for humanitarian missions and evacuations, these vast dirigibles have become decrepit floating cities, and they rule huge swathes of the world, collecting tribute from all those who live beneath them.

Jan Dorvin lives in once such community, a matriarchal society of female warriors whose paying of tribute has pushed them to breaking point. They plan to shoot down their Sky Lord - a ship known as the Lord Pangloth – and keep their tribute for themselves. This decision will see Jan enslaved and set to hanging from a rope thousands of feet up to polish the failing solar panels on the floating home of her oppressors.

It is here she meets Milo, a refugee like her, but possessed of strange abilities and a knowledge of science and the past that is odd for a slave. Milo saves Jan from assault (largely to preserve her for his own creepy advances) and the two of them form an uneasy alliance as they embark on an adventure that will change the world and challenge the feudal rule of the airship cities.

There’s some great worldbuilding here, and it sucked me right in, despite their being a few weak points in the story.

Jan is an interesting character - a young warrior woman used to ruling over men, who is brave, tough and resourceful. Her hero potential as an Amazonian ass-kicker isn’t really reached, however, as despite her strength she pinballs around between dominant men throughout the book, most of whom treat her as either a non-entity or a target for rape. Jan is forced to use sex to get ahead, and sometimes (rather horrifically) submit to being used. Early on in the story she notes that sex given for survival or under duress is rape, and by her metric most of the sex her character is involved in is indistinguishable from that crime, which is pretty damn grim.

Jan's lack of agency in her own story is capped off by somewhat of a deus ex machina in the final act that involves a couple of machine personalities. Maybe my reader’s eye is a little jaundiced, but this development seemed a touch too convenient.

However, the good stuff in The Sky Lords makes up for some of these weaknesses. Brosnan’s post-tech neo-feudal society is vividly alive, as is his blighted wasteland. Likewise the imagined history behind it all is satisfyingly deep and well thought out. The characters and their backstories are genuinely interesting and my curiosity as to how the world was blighted drew me through the narrative like a carrot hanging before a hungry horse. I’m genuinely looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, where I hope Jan will be given the stronger role her character deserves.

Despite its flaws The Sky Lords is an entertaining, moreish read that kept me glued to my reader. It took me a quarter of a century to return to this bleak and beleaguered world, and I loved finally learning the backstory of a novel that my teenage self loved. I really should have gotten around to reading it sooner.

Three point five aggressive mushrooms out of five.
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Reading Progress

April 14, 2019 – Started Reading
April 14, 2019 – Shelved
April 20, 2019 – Shelved as: science-fiction
April 20, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Jack (new) - added it

Jack Tripper Excellent review, Scott. I really need to get to this one despite your middling grade, as I'm a huge fan of this author's horror work as Harry Adam Knight, especially Slimer, one of the very best Alien/The Thing knockoffs I've read. I don't even care that it's a knockoff, as those are two of my all-time favorite horror films (and two of my favorite SF films as well).

Scott Jack wrote: "Excellent review, Scott. I really need to get to this one despite your middling grade, as I'm a huge fan of this author's horror work as Harry Adam Knight, especially Slimer, one of..." I had no idea he wrote horror as well! Thanks for the tip- I'll add Slimer to my to read list. I actually really enjoyed this book- 3.5 stars to me is still a good read. I definitely recommend it if you've liked his other work, and I've moved straight on to book two in this series for a re-read after 25 years.

message 3: by Jack (new) - added it

Jack Tripper We seem to have pretty similar tastes -- I mean, we both love Stewart Lee for god's sake (and I'm in the states where seemingly no one knows he exists), so I say go for it with Slimer! You may hate it, but if you like those aforementioned films you'd probably dig it.

I'll definitely be giving The Sky Lords a go in the near future.

Scott You're a fellow Stewart Lee fan? Say no more. You clearly have excellent taste :) I imagined he wouldn't be well known in the US - how did you hear about him? I've been hoping he'll tour to Australia but so far my hope is a forlorn one.

I'm looking forward to reading Slimer. I'm enjoying book 2 of The Sky Lords so far. It's a fun read, and Brosnan keeps it pacy.

message 5: by Jack (new) - added it

Jack Tripper Several years ago I was reading a Pitchfork interview with some musician (I forget who now) and he declared Stewart Lee as being the most brilliant comedian of our generation. He mentioned how he repeats certain phrases to the point of being almost hypnotic, and I knew I had to check him out. After watching what was available on Youtube, I ordered all his DVDs (thinking I had a region-free player, which I didn't---thank god for torrents) and have been a major fan ever since. I find his newer material every bit as brilliant (if not more so) than his old, and wish with every fiber of my being that he'll tour the U.S. eventually, even as an opening act just to get some exposure here.

Scott Jack wrote: "Several years ago I was reading a Pitchfork interview with some musician (I forget who now) and he declared Stewart Lee as being the most brilliant comedian of our generation. He mentioned how he r..." I agree with the musician! Lee really is a comedy marvel. I really liked Content Provider, although I have a serious soft spot for Carpet Remnant World, which a friend of mine was lucky enough to see during the show's Edinburgh run - to my eternal envy. Sadly, he seems to be too busy to tour to Australia. Have you seen the Comedy Vehicle shows?

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