The Fledging of Az Gabrielson: The Clouded World Series Book One (Gollancz SF S.)
by Jay Amory
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575078782
Date: 17 August, 2006 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Gollancz has over recent years gathered together an extraordinarily versatile stable of writers – indeed they're a bunch so talented that collectively they reach into every conceivable corner of the genre marketplace. Amongst them are writers who have scored in both the adult and the young adult (YA) markets – perhaps most notably they publish Chris Wooding (The Braided Path Trilogy - reviewed on this site in full) though his YA output has up to now been published by Scholastic; there's also Gwyneth Jones (The Bold As Love trilogy), who writing as Ann Halem has been around YA fiction for some years.
This month Gollancz publishes a novel they are specifically targeting towards the YA market – The Fledging of Az Gabrielson is the first in a trilogy of novels by Jay Amory, an author described by Gollancz in the briefest of terms as "...a debut children's novelist." This is pretty much all they're prepared to tell us about Mr or Miss Amory though one doesn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to see that the publishers uncustomary reluctance to push this new author, coupled with the androgynous name involved are both pretty good pointers towards a pseudonym at work.
At the start of Amory's novel we learn that humanity has evolved. People – winged people - now live in ornate and beautiful cities way up in the sky. These cities are solidly perched upon pedestals that rise from the Earth's surface, but true knowledge of whatever lies beneath the unbroken clouds below has been lost in the mists of time. The groundlings, distant cousins of the winged humans are long extinct and their history is merely something for museums to exhibit in tableaux and for teachers to relate to their students. This life in the skies would seem Utopian if not angelic, but for one young boy, this is not so. Az Gabrielson is a rarity amongst his people, for he's a boy without wings, and of course, being different often makes life difficult, especially for a teen. Unremarkably then, Az is a boy with attitude, one forced to stand up for himself, and when on a school field trip to the museum, he is insulted by a strange and rather rude man, he is quick to show his teeth.
Later the very same man turns up at Az's house and informs his parents that the boy (whose mettle was being tested back at the museum) is required to perform a secret mission for the government and Az must therefore accompany him to Silver Sanctum, the capital of the airborne society. There young Az is ushered into the company of Lady Aanfielsdaughter, the leader of the Airborne, whereupon he learns that it is (as we all knew) his wingless state that uniquely qualifies him for this secret mission. We learn further that the sky cities are kept supplied via huge elevators that come up from the surface, elevators that contain all the raw materials (coal, wood & etc) that are essential for the functioning of society. So, those groundlings aren't extinct after all! They're still a mystery though, and for some reason, they've stopped sending the all-important supplies, something that hasn't happened in living memory. On behalf of his people, Az must travel to the surface and find out what's going on...
And so the story that follows this scene setting is one where our young hero discovers what lies on the surface and becomes involved in adventures down below, and it really isn't until this story hits the ground that it truly starts to motor. For all the meticulous world building work Amory puts into the beginning, there remains a self-conscious, slightly too deliberate feel to the early part of the piece, as if in tackling the YA market head on, Amory is tempering natural instincts to roughen things up a bit. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what the problem is here, but guess I just never felt comfortable up in the Clouded World – it all seemed a little to sanitised. Down under the clouds though, this book takes on a completely different character, for there Az discovers a society divided. He comes to ground in the midst of the Deacons, guardians of an ancient religious sect that worships the fabled winged ascendants and oversees the tribute of materials sent up in the elevators. Their position in society is itself elevated, but for the rest, the winds of change are blowing. The workers are unhappy with the Deacons and political discontent is brewing. There are strikes and protests all over – (it is these, incidentally, that have caused problems with the supply chain) and it is into this melting pot of dissent and upheaval that Az is literally dropped.
There is a weight in this secondary location and the situations we encounter there that give substance to this book and I think that in spite of the implicit imbalance here, ultimately it makes the piece successful. Amory peppers the ground with an absolutely wonderful cast of characters – there are the wicked clerics, lazy and self-indulgent and too absorbed in their own doctrine to recognise the needs of their flock; there are the salt-of-the-earth workers, good and (for the most part) honest folk, scratching away a living under the clouds; there is the proud and silver-tongued Alan Steanarm, leader of the Humanist faction and a man seeking personal glory far more than social change; there are the stupid parochial brutes that dance to Steamarm's tune; there's the study, boyish, determined, loyal, level-headed, vulnerable Cassie Grubdollar, the young heroine who rescues Az and helps save the world...& etc. All great stuff!
Despite the turbulence early in the journey, Amory is a writer with an innate social conscience and a voice that calls to readers of all ages. I look forward to seeing how the story develops in the next volume.