I read Sky in the Deep after requesting it as an ARC from the publisher. I’m usually a little reserved when it comes to books about the far past. I can’t really tell you why that is, because one of my favourite books ever since I was sixteen is Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. Maybe because I thought it so amazing that everything else pales in comparison. But there is also the problem of YA usually being very light on the historic aspect, and when I read about history, I want to really read about it.
Sky in the Deep did it’s best to get around that problem. What I liked very much about it, is that it immediately dives into the “language lingo”. Certain phrases or words are in the Viking language, and they are not explained to the readers in any other way that context. It always makes me feel as if I’ve really stepped into that world. I do think some readers might be put off by it but then again, I’m put off by having things explained to me that are already obvious enough. It’s a matter of taste.
I adored the first part of the book. It does not waste time. It explains who Eelyn is, who her support system is and immediately introduces her to the main plot: a brother she thought dead who is now fighting for the enemy. Eelyn is subsequently taken prisoner and inserted into her brother’s new household. Eelyn animosity towards this new family of Iri felt very real and vibrant. Her frustration is well written, and as a reader I could understand both sides of the argument. I could see where Iri was coming from as well, and I think Adrienne Young handled this very well.
Another big plus is the way Sky in the Deep handles the differences between the Riki and the Aska. Their religion is both shared and apart from one another. Their gods are in conflict, and one seems the peaceful half of the violent other. Yet neither the Riki nor the Aska care for the god of the other, so their customs are completely different. During the second half of the book, both people have to come to the understanding that despite their differences, they are cut from the same cloth – uniting against their common enemy. An enemy who makes the differences between them seem small and insignificant.
My main concerns with this YA novel is that some things seem to be underdeveloped. The Herja, for example. Who are they, where do they come from, why do they do what they do? They remain in the realm of “the enemy”, in the guise of boogeymen. Where Adrienne Young manages to make the Riki and the Aska both appear very human, the Herja remain behind. All we are told (more than once) is that they look different, but that does not seem to serve any real function to the story.
It also shines through in the motives of the secondary characters, which felt either underexplained or underdeveloped. Runa, for example, when she dresses the new house slave like Aska royalty for an important Riki ceremony. The fact that Eelyn is made to look beautiful is already a bit weird, but Runa has also been shown not to like her because of her Aska heritage. The move also understandably antagonizes the crowd against Eelyn, but Runa does not do this on purpose and no one in the household seems to pick up on that very obvious fact. When it goes wrong, it’s clear Adrienne Young just needed a reason for violence against Eelyn, and it feels forced.
The character of the Tala feels to me quite unneccessary. The character rarely enters into the narrative in a meaningful way (i.e., to either further the story, explain the story or delay the story), despite appearing in a great many scenes. It never becomes clear what her motives are, nor do we get an explanation for her strange behaviour. If you left her out, it would not be noticable in the story. Adrienne Young’s editor should have told her to either discard the character or give her an actual function.
The second half of the book was – in my opinion – weaker than the first. After the attack by the Herja it is quickly decided that Eelyn will be released (what happened to the snows?). Not only will Fiske bring her back home, both she and him are entrusted with the mission to convince the Aska to join the Riki to strike back at the Herja together. Of course, there is a real urgency to move quickly, but why doesn’t anyone question the fact that they are sending two inexperienced teenagers on such an important diplomatic mission?
Just because a Riki and an Aska like each other, does not equip them to convince their leaders to put aside a centuries old feud. Neither of their parents is a leader within their communities so their word carries no weight, and it’s made clear that their tribes are only two in many. How do the adults in this book think these kids are going to pull it off? It’s not even remotely believable and Adrienne Young doesn’t even try to find justification.
In summary, you could say my biggest problem with the second half of the book is that it glosses over important implications. The Riki very quickly accept they must work together with the Aska despite centuries of kililng each other in a blood feud demanded by their gods, in a world where religion is very real and very present. The Aska, in turn, very quickly accept the same. Their argument (preserving themselves) is valid, but religion and hate are not reasonable. The separate villages of both Riki and Aska, who do not seem to have any sort of reliable communication system, find their way to the meetings alright. They also know where to meet the Herja and are in time for that, despite multiple back and forths between territories that take multiple days.
The Sky in the Deep lays more emphasis on interpersonal relationships than on the action. That’s a valid choice – even if the people in the story are focused mostly on battle, that doesn’t mean Adrienne Young needs to be. But her emphasis on those relationships is uneven. Some get a lot of attention: Eelyn’s conflict with Mýra is something I had not expected to be treated so in-depth and I liked reading it. Eelyn’s conflict with Iri in the first half of the book is the same, even as the way she and Inge danced around each other. But on the other hand there is no smooth progression for her and Fiske’s relationship. It starts as a slow simmer, but then jumps into undying, forever love far too quickly.
And poor Runa – did Adrienne Young forget she killed Runa’s father in the first Herja attack already, when she axed her mother in the final battle?
Sky in the Deep is a pleasant read. It focuses on the interpersonal relationships and really knows how to flesh out Eelyn and the Riki tribe in the first half of the book. The second half was weaker, exposing a few problems with characters’ motives and believability of the plot. Overall, I enjoyed reading it more than I thought I would considering my slight prejudice against YA taking place in the far past. To really develop the story, a duology would probably have been advised, but it works better as a standalone than it would have as a full trilogy. I would recommend this book to YA readers who like reading historical novels rather than fantasy readers, but I do think it will appeal to both groups.