If on a Starry Night a Traveler
Grab a drink, cozy up next to the fire, and experience a tale like no other in the new science fiction novel by Aliya Whiteley.
Review by Alexander Pyles
March 23, 2021
Few books are as cozy and as disquieting as Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn. Set in the Western Protectorate, a territory devoted to luddite pastoralism, we follow innkeepers, Jem and Islay. The pair met during the war on Qita while on opposing sides, but they have been inseparable since. Jem and Islay’s routine is disrupted when a visitor comes to Skyward Inn with troubling reminders of their past and hints of what was missed during the conflict on Qita. The war ended when the Qitans gave themselves to the Earth’s invading forces, but it becomes less clear if this was a true victory after all.
A literary novel at its core, the science fiction shell of Skyward Inn is truly lovely and nicely complements the often weird, but heartfelt narrative. Identity and belonging are central themes in the story. They are brought to the fore with every paragraph and remind the reader with painstaking detail that we are always looking for a home in both a literal and figurative sense despite often being denied a true sense of belonging. “Being human is the problem,” as Jem states. Humanity is too crude, too individualistic, too transient, too brief.
The setting for the story, the Skyward Inn, is the perfect place to explore these themes of transience and isolation, for this is the essence of an inn–the lonely bar, the solitary rooms, the travelers who take a room for one night an then leave. But an inn is also a meeting place and a source of community for people to gather and have a drink; “…a gift to themselves when nothing else is giving.” Here Jem has found a place where she belongs and has made her home alongside Islay who, despite being an outsider, has been welcomed.
The style is very much a fluid thing, as thick and hazy as I imagine Jarrowbrew to be, which is the rare drink of choice for Qitans and Jem herself. Taking a drink of this substance causes her to slip in and out of memory and the reader goes back in time with her. The effect reminds me of the murkier parts of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. The experience is disorienting to the reader, yet Whiteley’s grounded prose, firmly in the dirt of what was Britain, keeps us on course rather than adrift.
Skyward Inn is a quietly disarming and beautiful book that masterfully blends literary conventions with science fiction. As Jem says, “This is a place where we can be alone, together.”