Fonda Lee is best known for her bestselling Green Bone Saga, a trilogy that sends readers to a world of crime families and magic, where Kekonese jade gifts its wearers with supernatural gifts—though the jade becomes an addiction that burns through the untrained. The series stretches over 1800 pages, giving Lee plenty of time to delve into the modern magical world, and the politics of rival families and nations.
Her newest book is a very, very different story, not only in format—Untethered Sky, which hit shelves on April 18, is a novella—but in setting. Where the Green Bone Saga had room to stretch, Untethered Sky is tightly bound to its narrator, Ester, and her relationship with the roc she trains.
Lee chatted with Paste about stretching her creative muscles with the shift in length: “When I decided to make Untethered Sky a novella, I had to really hone in on the focus of the story—Ester and her relationship with Zahra—while being economical in my narrative choices in order to keep the story novella-length,” she explained. She also gave insight into the shift in setting. Green Bone Saga’s modern, urban feel fell back to allow Lee to explore the ancient countryside of the nation of Dartha.
The story begins with Ester’s very first meeting with Zahra, the enormous bird who will become the center of her life. The pair must bond together in the dark days, or Zahra will never follow Ester’s instructions, will never learn to hunt at Ester’s command. It’s absolutely necessary for the nation of Dartha to have rocs and their ruhkers, because only rocs can hunt manticores, monsters that murder humans in a frenzy, killing everything that screams.
The combination of rocs and manticores inspired Lee’s descriptions of Dartha. “Rocs and manticores both originate from Persian mythology, so I wanted the fictional kingdom of Dartha to evoke the monsters’ ‘natural habitat’ of the Middle East,” she described. To keep the worldbuilding tight for the length of the piece, Lee focused much of her real-world research on the art of falconry, on which the role of the ruhkers is based. “I did a substantial amount of research into the sport and culture of falconry,” Lee revealed, “and also into the climate, landscape, plants, and animals of what is now modern-day Iran. I wanted to make all the little details of Ester’s day-to-day life feel real and authentic (within the context of a world with giant birds and man-eating monsters).” But where Lee found elements from history that would have limited her storytelling, she let them fall away. Commoner women would have been unlikely to attain a position as royal falconers in Persia, she confessed, but “I felt quite free not to adhere to that in my fantasy world, where the widespread threat of manticores led to the development of the ruhking profession, and the only creatures that can kill manticores sometimes have strong gender preference (as parrots and other domestic birds often do).”
In the novella, Lee gives readers information bit by bit, focusing on the now of Ester and Zahra’s partnership, but offering peeks into the past of how Ester, a commoner, developed the passion and dedication required to gain a ruhker apprenticeship. She loved the giant birds from the moment she first saw one, but it was a tragedy that drove her toward the profession, a job that required her to give up her home and family. She had, readers discover, little family to go home to, not after a manticore slew the others, driving a wedge between Ester and her father.
But while Lee spends time on Ester’s personal tragedy, and her masterful foreshadowing in Ester’s voice bridges each section, tying the past to the future on vibrating threads, much of the book glows with joy. Lee’s description of the rocs and their relationships with their trainers is full of awe and wonder. The irritation many ruhkers feel about the nobility they must occasionally entertain feels reminiscent of the residents of any tourist town, irked when strangers wander into their territory to prevent them from doing their work. But the court of Dartha also has its wonders, and the temple to the Almighty Fire Bringer, Dartha’s god, makes an impression with its beauty and sense of sacredness, despite its short appearance.
The religion of the region pervades Ester’s narrative, and Lee’s choice of a monotheistic faith is an intentional one to reflect the setting’s inspiration. “I think that one reason fantasy so often defaults to a pantheistic or polytheistic worldview is that many people perceive those beliefs as being older or more primitive, and they perceive monotheism, which dominates current Western society, to be more recent,” she explained. “Writers who create a polytheistic fantasy setting may be doing so in order to lean into a stereotype of pre-modern societies. Zoroastrianism, however, is both monotheistic and one of the world’s oldest faiths. I’m not of that faith, so I didn’t want to claim to represent it in my fiction, but I did want the spiritual traditions and beliefs of Dartha to generally reflect the relevant inspiration of place and history. In the Green Bone Saga, I wrote a polytheistic modern society, and in <i>Untethered Sky</i> I wrote a monotheistic pre-modern one. I like the idea of breaking down that stereotype I mentioned earlier.”
Despite the short length, details like this make Ester’s world feel lived in. Lee’s prose invites readers to envision huge birds that fill the sky and dream of guiding them to their prey. The story flows seamlessly, moving back and forth across time to reveal or hint at information at just the right moment to keep readers turning the pages. The romanticism—built on a sturdy foundation of real work—of the rocs elevates these underused mythological creatures, giving them the feeling of acclaim that unicorns and dragons (and, more recently, owlbears) have traditionally received.
It’s a setting so rich, with a narrator so engaging, in fact, that readers will hope Lee returns to it in future works—perhaps always keeping the narrative as tightly bound to the novella format as a rukher is bound to her roc.
Untethered Sky is available now from Tordotcom.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.