Updraft is a widely hyped YA fantasy, set in a city made of bone. In this city, people live in bone towers among the clouds, their social status determined by how far up the towers they live, learning to fly on the updrafts to travel between towers. The growth of the towers is controlled to some extent by the city’s mysterious governing body the Singers, who also deal out harsh punishments against those who break the city’s stringent laws.
For the city is threatened by skymouths: enormous invisible flying creatures who swallow unwary fliers whole: the first and last you see of them is a great tooth-filled mouth like something out of one of those nightmares you wake up sweating from at 3am.
Kirit Densira is about to take her wingtest, which will allow her to fly unaccompanied between the towers and become a trader like her mother, when she breaks tower law and attracts a skymouth. In order to keep her family safe from the consequences, she’s forced to make a deal with the Singers, becoming one of them and leaving everything she loves behind. Once there, she uncovers all kinds of unsavoury secrets about the Singers’ control over the city.
In other words, Updraft is a pretty typical YA dystopia: a novel validating that teenage sentiment that the whole world is against you and seeking to oppress you. Like most YA novels, it has a highly coloured emotional palette, in that everything is either wonderful or a disaster (because, again, that’s what being a teenager is like); which is to say, Kirit sees the world pretty much in black and white.
What makes this frustrating in this instance is that Updraft is constantly gesturing at complexity and never quite reaching it. The history that the towers remember – glorious and harmonious – is not the one that the Singers recall, and it seems that the novel is setting up a conversation about ways in which dystopia can be, if not justified, at least understandable: if the restriction of freedom can save lives, is it worth it?
Only, Kirit sees the world in the blacks and whites of a teenager, so the answer is only ever a resounding no; and it’s not as if her perspective is ever solidly questioned.
Ultimately, I think this is a structural problem with the genre: I’m not sure YA is quite set up to address the legitimacy of dystopia, because that’s not quite what it’s for. I feel like Updraft is just trying to do things its genre finds difficult to do, which makes it an unsatisfying read.