Rating: ⭐ *Light/Implied Spoilers*
When I heard that Marie Lu was releasing a new novel, I immediately thought of how much I enjoyed Warcross and Wildcard. While I haven't read her most popular series, Legend, Warcross is imaginative and well-written, and the series and characters stuck with me long after I finished it. I won't spoil it for others, but I went into Skyhunter eager for the same sense of characterization, world-building, and absorption.
Skyhunter begins in the land of Mara, a stronghold city against The Karensa Federation, a piecemeal of conquered nations led by the young Karensian leader, the Premier. Living within and around the ruins of a long-dead civilization, The Karensa Federation believes their rule is the only way to overcome the mistakes of the previous civilization and save the human race, going as far to kill and conquer all others on the land to impose and maintain their way of life.
Talin is a Striker, trained as part of an elite force to preserve Mara's independence and protect its people from the grotesque creatures called Ghosts that wander the land between Mara and its neighbors, intent on eating the Maran people. Talin is a Basean refugee, forced to enter Mara at a young age when the Karensa Federation invaded. Forced from her home and into a new nation that doesn't welcome her people, Talin goes mute and never speaks again, relying on sign-language to communicate with those around her. The first Basean refugee to join the Strikers, Talin oscillates between feeling ostracized and feeling loyal to her savior nation.
Lu's basic ideas for Skyhunter are an elevated twist on familiar fantasy favorites. War and refuge center on the page, but mutism, loyalty, and nationalism also feature.
However, Skyhunter feels under-developed in most of these aspects, especially Talin's mutism, relationships with others, and the center lore of the book. The disjointed use of lore as background and character motivation for The Karensa Federation was the major issue for me. Throughout the novel, they refer to the ruins and the histories and the books of the previous civilization, claiming that The Kerensa Federation is more advanced because they have access to more knowledge of the dead civilization. Because of this, I expected that history to play a bigger part in the plot of the novel; however, it only acts as background information.
Similarly, The Kerensa Federation has constructed a war to conquer all the nations on the continent, claiming a fantasy version of manifest destiny. The Federation is killing in the name of "survival," urging that they will be better than the dead civilization and last longer once all the nations are consolidated. However, their purpose seems backwards. Why must they conquer everyone to survive? In Skyhunter, they are the only threat on the continent... so what are they surviving against? What do they know from the early civilization that pushed them to start killing and conquering everyone else for their own survival? I see no benefit to their actions. They're not subjugating the other peoples for their innate benefit. Everything they do is simply to conquer, not survive.
Perhaps there will be a major realization in the next novel that explains what the Federation is so afraid of, but with all the unrealized foreshadowing in Skyhunter, it feels more like a plot hole than an intentional cliffhanger.
Despite the plot-holes, Lu's writing style is clean and easy on the page. She writes with ease, letting the writing style fade in the background as the book delves deeper into the plot. Her style is plot-driven over everything else, making this almost 400-page book fly by. Often so fast it feels like we're sacrificing characterization for the sake of staying on track with the plot.
On the brink of war with the Federation, the Maran Strikers take a prisoner. Questioning his presence in Mara and his purpose in leaving the Federation, Talin becomes entwined with his story.
The link between Talin and the prisoner drives the novel, giving them the change the Marans need to move forward and continue to fight against domination, annihilation. But the relationship between these characters feels confused in its development. Lu's characterization in her past novels has been subtle, and relationships build between the lines and in the small scenes. While I think Lu attempted the same feel in Skyhunter, it just doesn't read on the page.
The characterization between Talin and the other characters is effortless. There are pre-existing bonds that give Talin footing in a nation that doesn't want her. However, her bonds with the prisoner feel underdeveloped. Is it romantic? Is it platonic? Is it real or a by-product?
All the little moments that should exist between them don't materialize, but the story continues as they did.
Using their connection, I think Lu really missed an opportunity to play with Talin's mutism. Without spoiling any of the surprises surrounding Talin and the prisoner, I'll just say that the author could've gone farther with their connection, their ability to speak to each other/others, understand each other, and convey that on the page.
Ultimately, Marie Lu's Skyhunter was an interesting read. It didn't hold many surprises and often didn't go far enough in what it tried to do, but it was worth the read in the sense that it makes me want to reread Warcross again. If there's a sequel to Skyhunter, I probably won't pick it up.