Paul Collins,
The Skyborn
(Tor, 2005)

A huge ship, Colony, left Earth to colonize a planet orbiting the star Tau Ceti, but returned 300 years later and crashed near Melbourne, Australia. The crew (the "Skyborn") have a rigid, hierarchical society and see themselves as superior beings. Meanwhile, those who remained on Earth (the "Earthborn") have experienced a sub-apocalyptic holocaust, famine and rampant disease (including widespread progeria, that causes death, by old age, before age 25) and have, for the most part, declined into nomadic clans, savagery and barbarism.

The Skyborn view the Earthborn as a plague to be eliminated so that the Skyborn can colonize Earth and start over. A small band of Earthborn and exiled Skyborn dissidents, who are trying to establish a peaceful farming community, find out about the Skyborn's plague-elimination plan and move to disrupt it. Meanwhile, an Earthborn religious fanatic tries to usurp power over the peaceful community.

These are the seeds of a very interesting action-adventure story. The strengths of the book are its action sequences, the different ideologies described and the relationships between the characters.

However, there are many more flaws than strengths. First, this is the second book in a series and, when an author writes a sequel, he or she has several choices: present a recapitulation section, like a preface; have the continuing characters describe their "history" to new characters, and thereby enlighten the reader; write the book in a way that it can stand alone; or, do none of the above, and leave the reader floundering to figure out who is who, what is what, etc. Paul Collins used the last option, and readers will be quite lost for at least the first third of the book, unless they have recently read the preceding book, The Earthborn.

Next, I have never read a book where there is as little physical description of the characters as there is in The Skyborn. I did not read The Earthborn, and maybe the descriptions are there. But after reading all of The Skyborn, I have very little mental imagery of the characters.

This book is identified as being for grades 8 through 11, or ages 13 through 17. Much of the story does fit that age range, and readers in that range will identify with many of the characters, as the rampant progeria has left teenagers as the main people in control on Earth. However, there is a fair amount of highly technical jargon, in physics and genetics, that will test the limits of understanding of many adults.

My biggest age-related concern though was the rampant violence and minimal remorse. You might be thinking, "Well, the bad guys are supposed to be mean and cruel." I was referring to the good guys as much as to the bad. When the protagonists are on the way to sabotage the genocidal scheme of the Skyborn, they slaughter a group of "cavers" (cave-dwelling clan members) and a group of "the Penitent" (cave-dwelling religious extremists). Our heroes show very little compunction, reluctance or remorse about killing dozens of people. True, it was defensive, but they just didn't seem to care that many people ended up dead.

The bottom line is that this book has a good premise and some strengths, but the myriad of flaws drops the overall quality to mediocre.

by Chris McCallister
10 June 2006

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