Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: Ten Thousand Skies Above You

Author: Claudia Gray
Genre: Science fiction, young adult, contemporary, romance
My rating: ★★★★1/2 (4.5 of 5 stars)

If someone hands you a ticket to an alternate universe—a reality different from where you are standing now—where would you want to be? The universe where you took that big risk that might have made your dreams come true? Probably the reality where a certain person did not leave you and killed half your soul in the process? The dimension perhaps where you opted to embrace this person’s heart instead of slowly poisoning it with hurt?

We may reel in these thoughts in the form of sighed regrets and weakly disguised daydreams, but for Marguerite Caine, the concept of multiverse is more than just a bittersweet notion of what-might-have-been. It all started when her life was turned upside down the day her physicist parents invented a device that allows a person to travel between parallel universes—the Firebird. Marguerite learns the benefits and perils of using the Firebird after her first travels, back when she was driven by rage and revenge after the “death” of her father. One long string of misunderstandings (and countless misadventures) later, Marguerite once again finds herself leaping across dimensions to save Paul, the love of her life, from powerful enemies who want to use the Firebird for their own dark plans. Paul’s soul is splintered into four pieces that are trapped within other Pauls in alternate realities. Before her enemies catch up with her, Marguerite must save Paul and his other-world counterparts.

In this follow-up to A Thousand Pieces of You, Claudia Gray launches into yet another mad, white-knuckle romp of a dimension-hopping quest that slaked my anticipation for the series. It is startlingly addictive despite looking like, at first glance, a gimmick-laced sequel that forced itself to latch onto the idea of its parent. The sceptic in me initially frowned at the whole “splintered soul, collect them all” thing, having encountered this trope in many stories before. But the book proved to be larger and more intricate than the clichéd premise; the author executed it with one bang of a literary gunshot that blew me away completely.

Like its predecessor, Ten Thousand Skies Above You also teems with scientific jargon, love, adrenaline rush, different flavours of Machiavellianism (ah, the very spice of this book!), the blend of romance and mathematics making up what we like to call destiny, and the twists that will keep its audience at the edge of their seats. Knowing that it did not in any way suffer being the second book in the trilogy is refreshing; the story stands solidly on its own, unlike others that are only churned out to serve as hollow bridges for the first and third books.

With our heroine’s feelings for our handsome bachelor-in-a-bind moving the plot along, it is understandable that romance will eat up a substantial part of the story; moreover, it also coincides with how the events were wrapped up in the preceding novel. Gray, thankfully, made it so that every page was not saturated with typical YA mush—just enough fluffy romance to oil up the gears and keep the tale going.

But keep in mind that not all romance was pure cheese and cloying sweetness. It may be true that a person has other versions in the varied spectrum of parallel universes, but Marguerite has a staunch faith in the consistency of one’s soul. She believes that a person may have ten thousand variations, but they’re all the same at their core. So when she bumps into a counterpart of Paul that shows a darker, crueller side—a counterpart that does not feel a dollop of genuine care for the Marguerite of his world—she begins to question the strength of their love across universes. This is an intriguing emotional turn, one that shakes our heroine’s resolve and reveals more layers of her personality.

Characterisation, of course, is still top-notch. With many characters leaping from one version of themselves after another, they have to manipulate their behaviour in order to convince the mirrored counterparts of their world that they have not just commandeered the body of their other selves. The author once again proved that she is adept at making characters pop out of the pages no matter how many versions they may have, having done it flawlessly in A Thousand Pieces of You.

I’m particularly enamoured with how she shaped up Marguerite more—she already did a good job with her in the first instalment so I was surprised she did something better here. It is a common formula for badass YA heroines to be written as pseudo-superhumans, with “weaknesses” endearing enough to be chalked up as additional quirks. The author opted not to subscribe to this recipe. So while Marguerite maintained her spunk and softness as well as the relentless questioning on the morality of life-hijacking, she uncovered that side of her that just wants to eschew reality for a while after it has taken its toll on her. This humanizes her otherwise too heroic makeup.

Wyatt Conley, the main antagonist, has been given a heftier identity here. I like my bad guys in various shades of grey, not all-wicked in a cardboard-thin kind of way. He was but fuzzy evil figure in the A Thousand Pieces of You so I’m happy his character is given weight and personality here. He is more complex than I realize; I can’t wait what the author has up her sleeve for him in the next book.

Gray’s nimble hands also did good with the ever difficult world-building, a very significant element that will decide the three-dimensionality (ahem) of the trilogy’s universe. For this instalment, we have a war-torn San Francisco, the criminal underworld of a murkier New York City, a mesmerizing Paris where another Marguerite keeps a shocking secret, and a couple more baleful, futuristic universes that Marguerite takes dangerous trips to. It seems challenging to mould them fully in a novel that is barely 500 pages long, but the author managed to make it work! I believe that the way she expertly populates the settings with her characters has something to do with it.

Overall, Ten Thousand Skies Above You has been an enjoyable ride, one that I can’t help but pick up again the moment I finished it. The story ends with a gripping cliffhanger that will make the last book in the series—A Million Worlds With You—a surefire wild ride. With the first two novels proving to be true-blue unputdownables, I have expectations high for the finale.

4.5 stars for that exhilarating experience!

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