When I got the pitch from A.C.F. Crawford about “Sailor of the Skysea,” I was pumped-up happy about it. I love the age of sail; old sailing ships demanded so much art to operate that stories about their sailors almost always make for great reads. Add an element of fantasy to a story about black-powder sailing and I was pumped up.
When Crawford is hitting his stride, his writing is some of the best I’ve read doing this. There are scenes in this book with such lush, vivid descriptions that pull the reader in and allow you to luxuriate in the pain and duress of Ytzak Anan’s world. Crawford has packed Ytzak’s story with conflict, and he’s put enough pressure on Ytzak from all angles: Ytzak is racially different, educationally different, physically different, and emotionally different from everyone around him at any point in time, and it’s fun to watch Ytzak change how he comports himself when dealing with different people. There are smart, tightly-drawn action scenes, for which I have enormous respect. Where Sailor of the Skysea is good, it is very, very good.
The problem Crawford has is that where Sailor of the Skysea is bad, it is very, very bad. One moment you’ll be reading about the toil of the boatmen as they drag a flatboat up a river by hand, and you’ll feel like you’re there with them. The next moment, Crawford’s speaking in pages of italicized text about the very boring, very dry history of the world. He’s got a character that’s basically new to the place, and he’s exploring the world with that character, but that doesn’t seem enough for Crawford. No, exposition in this book is ham-handed at best. Those luscious action and description scenes come at this cost; clunky exposition.
It’s very easy to write a great description of something like action if you’re not simultaneously worried about getting your exposition done. Crawford has decided to dump exposition on his reader like a horse dumps manure on the street; unplanned, invariably in the wrong place, and with the assurance that someone else will clean it. In Crawford’s case, he’s leaving it to the reader.
I’m giving this book a higher rating than I’ve given books I didn’t like in the past. There’s a simple reason: this book breaks my heart. Half the book tells me a story that I really enjoy and that I really want to read more of. That part of the book I give full marks to. The other half of the book are these clunky exposition dumps, and those portions of the book get no marks. The result? I give half full marks for half the story. I really hope that, in books to come, Crawford works his exposition in more smoothly. It was one of the hardest challenges we had on Grace Under Fire, so I know how he feels.
Last comment: For a book entitled Sailor of the Skysea, and a billing about being an age-of-sail fantasy, this book really isn’t. It’s an adventure story with Ytzak as our main character, bouncing about from locale to locale out of necessity. There wasn’t actually any sailing, and the Skysea was referenced but never really travelled on. The overarching plot simply meanders, with the story feeling more like a mushed-together series of short stories rather than an actual novel. I enjoyed the hell out of some of those short stories – some of them bored me to death. In the end, the big plot question is never really resolved, we just kind of run out of book.
There was a time in college where I was eating powdered-sugar coated donut holes. Esther, unbeknowst to me, had acquired a jar of marinated mozzarella. She came up behind me while I was seated at my computer and reached her hand around, offering me something small, round, and white. As I had been eating donut holes, I assumed that’s what it was and bit in. When I hit the texture of marinated mozzarella while expecting donut hole, the image of a mold-laden donut hole sprung to my mind and I almost vomited, there and then. The point here is this: when you approach something with an expectation, and the event is substantially different (not necessarily better or worse, but different), your mind tends to reject it. Ever since that incident, Esther and I have referred to this as “donut/cheese syndrome.”
With Sailor of the Skysea, I went in expecting a book about fantasy on the high seas, maybe even with airships. What I got was an alternate-history book with very little fantasy at all about a guy who gets hired onto a riverboat. I thought donut, I got cheese, and it made me react as though the cheese were nasty. This isn’t a horrible book, and if you can get past the exposition dumps it has flashes of sheer brilliance. If you go into it knowing what you’re going to get, you’ll probably like it better than I did.