Sky in the Deep
by Adrienne Young
Wednesday Books/St. Martin's Press, 2018
Debut novels come fraught with their own particular set of perils, as all readers know and as all debut novelists, the poor creatures, are the last to learn. Debut novels will be lopsided in proportion, like little MFA-crafted voodoo dolls. Debut novels will trip over their own feet in their eagerness to share their stories with readers, rather than trusting those readers to, you know, read. Debut novels will almost certainly lack an individual voice, since that's usually acquired through practice. Debut novels will be intensely trendy, because their trendiness will have been the thing that nudged them into an agent's hands in the first place. And the list goes on.
Such strictures are tough enough, but a debut young adult novel doubles the difficulty, because the YA genre comes with its own set of perils, all of which are by now well-known: the flat characters, the Curse of the Missing Parent, the prevalence of a “Mary Sue” (a young female character with no training or experience who nevertheless easily outdoes all the adult men in the book), the reality-defining all-important centrality of the Love Triangle … and the list goes on.
So a YA debut novel from a major publishing house simultaneously impresses and distresses: debuts are always exciting, but what slender, trembling filament of originality can have possibly survived both the debut novel Crusher and the YA novel Iron Maiden? Wary readers are justified in starting Adrienne Young's debut YA novel Sky in the Deep with fear and trembling, wondering if they'll even go a dozen pages before barking their shins on a mossy old cliché or a ham-handed bit of virtue-signaling.
Those readers are in luck: Young has a fantastic tale to tell and goes about her business with the skill and dispatch of a far more seasoned author. In these pages she tells the story of a 17-year-old Viking warrior-girl named Eelyn, who has spent her entire young life as a fighting member of the Aska clan, joining her father and her best friends in sallies and skirmishes with their age-old enemies, the Riki clan. This is a finely-drawn fictional Viking world, full of characters who all share in common their harsh awareness that they could die tomorrow. They all know the parting prayer:
“Aska, you have reached your journey's end. We ask Sigr to accept your soul into Solbjorg, where the long line of our people hold torches on the shadowed pasts. Take my love to my father and my sister. Ask them to keep watch for me. Tell them my soul follows behind you. Take my love to my mother and my brother. Ask them to keep watch for me. Tell them my soul follows behind you.”
Eelyn is a skilled and stoic warrior, accustomed to using guile and agility to take down far larger and more powerful Riki opponents, but her fighting concentration is shattered in a skirmish one day when she sees her long-dead brother Iri alive and fighting in the ranks of the enemy. Shortly afterwards, she's captured by the Riki and forced to live among them, which sets the book's main plots in motion.
Those plots are very endearingly minimal and straightforward, as is Eelyn herself. Sky in the Deep indulges in virtually none of the gimmicks that can make some YA novels so tedious. It's true that Eelyn's mother is Gone, and it's true that Eelyn is a smidge more successful at hand-to-hand combat against grizzled, enormous male fighters than she probably should be. But she's an entirely believable heroine, and the world Young has created for her is wonderfully realized – and, for most of the book, unrelentingly death-haunted. Even far from combat, characters can find themselves abruptly in peril, as when Eelyn and her brother's friend Fiske are out in the woods and turn to see a large brown bear, standing on its hind legs watching them:
The hollow pump of the bear's breaths echoed, sending white puffs fogging the air around his snout. He came down onto his front feet and took a step toward us, his nose in the air. Fiske's whole body went rigid, his eyes lighting up with something I knew well. It was the same thing pulsing through every inch of my body – death coming close.
Sky in the Deep is a rewarding start to a writing career, a story whose broad, assured closing scenes feel completely earned. Those closing scenes will leave readers wishing they could spend more time with Eelyn. But since Endless Pointless Sequels are also a besetting peril of YA fiction, maybe not.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.