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Literature / Skyward

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Skyward is the first book in a planned YA quartet by Brandon Sanderson. It does not take place in The Cosmere, but is in the same continuity as one of his other works.

Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on Detritus, a mysterious planet that is constantly attacked by strange alien starfighters. While most huddle in caves, the fighter pilots of the Defiant Defense Force take to the skies to protect what remains of their civilization from utter destruction.

Spensa, a teenage girl living in the caves, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible - assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and, perhaps most importantly, persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.

This series contains the following books and novellas:

  • Skyward (November 2018)
  • Starsight (November 2019)
    • Sunreach (a novella from FM's perspective) (September 2021)
    • ReDawn (a novella from Alanik's perspective) (October 2021)
  • Cytonic (November 2021)
    • Evershore (a novella from Jorgen's perspective) (December 2021)
  • Defiant (November 2023)

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • A Girl and Her X: Brandon Sanderson has described the premise of the series as, "a girl and her starfighter."
  • Alternative Calendar: One of the interior art sketches makes mention of the story taking place in "83 LD (Landfall Date)".
  • Anyone Can Die: A number of the eponymous Skyward Flight - who either seem to fill roles that would typically last an entire series, or are given just enough characterization - die before the first book even finishes.
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: For some reason, the Krell never deploy more than a hundred interceptors at once, despite having an apparently limitless supply. Eventually explained: the Krell are acting as prison guards and are thus not actually trying to destroy humanity. The limit is in place as a result of this fact.
  • Artificial Gravity: The human fighters use two different kinds of grav-tech.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Kimmalyn likes to quote "the Saint," though no one else knows who she's even talking about. She later admits that she makes up most of the supposed quotes.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Seems to be developing between Spensa and Jorgen. Over the course of the first book, they go from hating each other to grudgingly acknowledging each other's good points to her finding her mind drifting over to thinking about him in unguarded moments.
  • Blood Knight: Spensa gets a reputation as one that she does her best to encourage, though she admits to herself that it's mostly just talk.
    • Both Bim and Hurl annoy their instructor Cob by complaining every time they're ordered to do something other than shoot Krell. Both get themselves killed before graduating by recklessly pursuing a target into a dangerous situation.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Several characters wonder why the genocidal Krell don't just send hundreds of ships to attack the heavily outnumbered human race instead of sending small strike teams that humanity can fight off. It's because the Krell aren't genocidal. The coalition they work for have a taboo against genocide but think that humans are Always Chaotic Evil so they ordered the Krell to trap humanity on one planet. The Krell attacks aren't meant to destroy humanity, they're just to stop humanity from organizing enough to escape the planet.
  • Cultural Rebel: FM is opposed to the entirety of Defiant culture, and even claims that she is not a Defiant despite being born to Defiant parents and growing up in Defiant society on a planet populated solely by Defiants. After all, has she not been told all her life that no true Defiant would be peaceful? Well, she's peaceful, so it follows that she's no true Defiant.
  • Deathbringer the Adorable: Doomslug, who is actually a harmless, curious slug who mimics sounds she hears and likes to be scratched on the "head".
  • Difficult, but Awesome:
    • The IMP device can disable a ship's Deflector Shields in one flash, but has two major limits. First, it only works within fifty meters, which is practically touch range. Second, it disables every shield within that radius... including your own.
    • The light-lances are even worse, being energy grappling hooks that can grab enemy fighters or falling debris. Cobb has the cadets spend the vast majority of their time working on the light-lances. Near the end, some older pilots "show off" by performing a couple light-lance maneuvers that Cobb's class learned in their first week.
  • Dirty Coward: Exaggerated. The Defiant society treats the concept of cowardice as in insult of the highest order, to the point where Spensa's father legacy as a coward is enough to stain Spensa's reputation for most of her life.
  • Do I Really Sound Like That?: Upon hearing M-Bot picking up her habit of making overblown boasts and insults, Spensa begs the rest of the flight to tell her she doesn't sound like that. She gets a very telling silence as a response.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Cobb seems to be trying to be this, constantly insulting his cadets and pointing out their flaws, but he's a lot more mellow than is usual for the trope.
  • Dwindling Party: Over the course of the first book, Skyward Flight sees one cadet after another either drop out or be killed in action, until only two of the original ten end up graduating. This is considered perfectly normal for a cadet class.
  • Earth All Along: Defied. It's stated that there are some people who think that Detritus is Old Earth, but educated people have established that that's impossible - it's the wrong size, for one thing.
  • Eldritch Abomination: It's ambiguous but one of these seems to live in the 'place' that Cytonic Hyperdrive uses to move faster than light and Spensa's psychic powers tap into. It has millions of white eyes and is full of hate but nothing else about it is revealed.
  • Elite Mooks: The lifebuster bombers and their escort flyers are faster and more reactive than regular Krell interceptors. They are also the only ships Spensa can't "hear", suggesting that they are piloted by actual Krell rather than by cytonic remote-control.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Each Pilot gets to chose their own callsign, but that doesn't prevent this from happening. There was a first First Citzen called "Broken Wind", and Skyward flight has "Hurl". Jorgen's get his when his preferred callsign "Jaeger" is already taken, and Spensa's nickname for him, "Jerkface", catches on instead. The flight leader of Nightmare flight "Nose", says he understands when Jorgen complains about his name, indicating that he similarly didn't chose his name either.
  • Exact Words: As an AI, M-Bot must follow his pilot's orders. But there's no rule against him choosing a new pilot.
  • Fantastic Nuke: The lifebuster bombs. When they're first described they sound like real nukes, but it's later revealed that they are really this trope. The bombs detonate in three stages: the first is a normal (but massive) explosion sent downward to break into underground caverns, the second is a wave of green corrosive energy that destroys anything organic and third is another explosion to launch the corrosion in all directions.
  • Flowery Insult: Due to growing up on her grandmother's stories of ancient heroes, Spensa believes a good insult is only slightly less important than actually being able to fight.
    Spensa: Always attack from a position of superior advantage! When this is done, Jerkface, I will hold your tarnished and melted pin up as my trophy as your smoldering ship marks your pyre, and the final resting place of your crushed and broken corpse!
    Jorgen: All right... Well, that was... descriptive.
  • Future Imperfect: Real people like Ghengis Khan and legendary figures like Beowulf both show up in the stories that Gran Gran tells Spensa. By the time the story begins no one knows which were real and which are just stories anymore.
  • Heroic BSoD: Spensa goes through one when she learns that her father turned against the Defiants.
  • Heroic Lineage: Spensa's grandmother claims that Spensa is descended from basically everyone of any importance on old Earth. When pressed, she says that the Defiant are the rightful inheritors of all of Earth.
  • Hidden Depths: Spensa's initial assumptions are always wrong.
    • Kimmalyn is a bit out of place as a pilot (and doesn't really know anything about flying), but she's the best sniper in the world and earned her spot.
    • Spensa is right that Jorgen is a spoiled rich boy, and her impressions seem to be leading us to think he's an Expy of Malfoy. However, he is genuinely the best flier in the class he's trying his best to be a good flightleader, and he chafes somewhat under the weight of his family's expectations.
    • She dismisses Arturo as Jorgen's crony, and he is, but he is also dedicated to his job and very good with statistics.
    • She dismisses Nedd as a stupider version of Arturo. Not only is he much smarter than he lets on, but he's one of the first to snigger at Jorgen's mistakes, and he's more willing than Jorgen to give her the benefit of the doubt.
    • She assumes that Rig always wanted to be a pilot. He didn't, really—he didn't know what he wanted, and just followed her around. He ends up happy as an engineer.
    • Hurl seems like a goofball, but is actually even more of a Proud Warrior Race Guy than Spensa herself.
    • Spensa thinks Morningtide is an aloof jerk, but she is actually just embarrassed that she doesn't speak English very well.
    • It takes Spensa forever to realize Bim has a crush on her.
    • She dismisses FM as a spoiled rich girl. While not completely inaccurate (FM admits her parents cover for her behavior), she is actually part of the counter-cultural movement that speaks out against the military supremacy.
    • Admiral Ironsides is not some petty bureaucrat lying about Spensa's father and punishing her out of spite; she genuinely believes that Spensa will be nothing but a horrible liability. And she would have been right, if M-Bot couldn't shield Spensa from psychic attack. It's also shown during her viewpoint chapters that she suffers greatly under The Chains of Commanding, to the point that when Cobb lists a number of other possible commanding officers, asking her if anyone else who died would have done better, she says outright that she wouldn't wish the job on anyone.
    • Spensa thought for years that her mother had just accepted the official story about her father and moved on. She's very surprised when she finds out that they had been offered lots of perks and money if her mother pretended her father had always been a coward, but she refused.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: It seems the entire alien community believes this is the case. Humans were involved in a wide-scale war against a coalition of alien forces, although the humans aboard the Defiant were not directly involved. Humans were deemed too dangerous and aggressive to join galactic society so the Krell agreed to keep them contained. When Spensa reaches their space station, they're more afraid of her than she is of them. But given the Krell's oppression of humanity—even the innocent crew of the Defiant—it's hard to say whether they're any better.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: We are told that there are things in the cytonic void that aren't happy about Spensa moving through it, and which seem to be something different from the Krell.
  • Hypocrite:
    • The government teaches that as the descendants of the Defiant Fleet, humanity must always be strong, aggressive, and defiant. Except when they are given orders, of course.
      Alfir: Remember, obedience is defiance.
    • This gets lampshaded by Cobb.
      Cobb: We name ourselves Defiants. It's the central ideal of our people—the fact that we refuse to back down. And yet, Ironsides always acts so surprised when someone defies her.
    • The First Citizens became their culture's nobility by bravely fighting against the Krell. Now they live in the safest caverns, use Loophole Abuse to get their children all the honors of a dangerous profession without actually putting them in danger, and flee with much-needed extra starfighters when things get bad.
      Ironsides: Cowards. Every one of them.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Spensa and FM both insult Jorgen freely, but when an older pilot tries to join in, they promptly rip him a new one.
  • Irony:
    • The "defect" that Ironsides was so convinced would lead to humanity's final doom turns out to be the only thing that gives them any chance against the Krell.
    • The Krell constantly hunt down large groups of humans to keep them from advancing enough to escape their prison. As a result they develop a warrior culture focused entirely on fighting the Krell and advancing their spacefaring technologies, ensuring that will eventually break free of their prison and almost certainly be hostile to any aliens they encounter after that point.
  • Just a Machine: Defied. M-Bot insists he's just a mindless machine even though he, as Spensa points out, repeatedly shows evidence of having his own personality and making his own decisions. Spensa is proven right when M-Bot decides to save her even though doing so goes against his orders. He can't disobey his pilot, so instead he waits until his main program isn't looking and than changes the name of his pilot in his code to Spensa.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Though she is petty about it, Ironsides turns out to have a very good reason to be so adamant about never letting Spensa fly. She saw Spensa's father turn against humanity, and believes that the "defect" will cause Spensa to do the same. And if it weren't for M-Bot's cytonic shielding, she'd have been right.
  • Loophole Abuse:
    • Cobb is able to let Spensa into flight school because he has the final authority over who is in his class, and even the admiral can't override him. She fights back by refusing to let Spensa use anything but the classroom and the training ships, locking her out of the mess hall and the dorms.
    • M-Bot cannot disobey his pilot's orders, even centuries after that pilot is dead. But he was able to sneak a subroutine in and, when his main program wasn't looking, change who his pilot is.
  • Martyrdom Culture: The Defiants glorify soldiers and honorable death to an absurd degree. The reasons are obvious, of course, considering they are constantly under threat from the Krell, but there is a counter-cultural revolution brewing that is very worried about the fact that they are basically a military dictatorship.
  • Minovsky Physics: As one would expect from a Brandon Sanderson sci-fi book. The exact properties of acclivity rings, light-lances, and grav-caps are clearly laid out and consistently followed.
  • More Dakka: Destructors have unlimited ammo, so there's little strategy to using them besides holding down the trigger and trying not to hit your wingmates. Cobb is dismissive of them for this reason, saying that any idiot can use the destructors, so he focuses on training cadets with the more difficult weapons.
  • Non P.O.V. Protagonist: The interludes are the only chapters written in third-person narration and feature Ironsides as the point of view character.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: M-Bot was a more or less normal design for pre-war humanity, but compared to the centuries-old Defiant tech and the reverse-engineered Krell ships, he is almost godlike in his capabilities.
  • Old-School Dogfight: The humans often fight with the Krell this way, trading destructor lasers and dodging each other. Cobb, however, is extremely dismissive of this manner of fighting; Krell ships are faster, and their shields and destructors are stronger. He prefers to teach his cadets how to use the light-lances instead, which are basically energy grappling hooks.
    Bim: No lip intended, but... I mean, I talked to some cadets from Firestorm Flight this morning. They've been dogfighting this entire time.
    Cobb: Good for them! When they're all dead, you can move into their room.
  • Only I Can Make It Go: Spensa's Gran-Gran mentions that her mother was not only the Defiant's engineer, but the only one who could make the engines work. Later explained more fully: It's cytonics like Spensa's line who actually travel faster-than-light, and all the mechanical apparatus just focuses and assists their efforts.
  • Outrun the Fireball: Tends to happen whenever a lifebuster gets dropped or shot down. Pilots who don't get out of the blast zone in time are killed. Inverted in the climax, when Spensa races to carry a ticking lifebuster far enough away that it won't destroy Alta when it donates.
  • Psychic Powers: Spensa and her father, as well as some others, have cytonic abilities. However, it also leads them to be vulnerable to psychic attack. In Chaser's case, inadequate protection led to him being turned against his comrades.
  • Psychic Starship Pilot: Inverted to the way the trope usually works: FTL navigation can be easily automated, but a cytonic is necessary to provide the actual propulsion.
  • Punch-Clock Villains: The supposedly monstrous Krell are actually a bunch of crab-like, brightly-colored jailers who are only keeping humanity imprisoned on the planet because they were sent by an alien coalition who humanity had been at war with. Though ultimately subverted as the Krell—or at least their bosses—seem to change their minds and decide to wipe humanity out entirely instead of just keeping them contained.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Although she never shows up on screen, Dr. Thior spends the entire book fighting to get the cadets in general, and Spensa specifically, proper care. While she doesn't always read the situation correctly (she gives Skyward Flight a week of medical leave when they want to work hard and keep busy), no one doubts she has everyone's best interests at heart. She even forces the admiral to let Spensa have proper access to the dorms and other base facilities.
  • Reduced to Ratburgers: Spensa made a habit of going out to the caves with a speargun hunting for big juicy rats to bring home for cooking and eating. Her skilled in hunting and trapping them even in near-total darkness came in handy when she was denied lunch privileges at the pilot training facility.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Ironsides is correct in that the Krell can influence the minds of people who have "the defect," but it's actually a mutation required for proper control of faster than light travel. This did not get Spensa's father to betray mankind, however. It allowed the Krell to cast an illusion over what he was seeing to convince him that his allies were Krell. At the end of the book, after Spensa reveals everything that she saw in her flight outside of the atmosphere, Ironsides begrudgingly admits that she has to pardon Spensa's father.
  • Soapbox Sadie: FM is a good-natured example. She isn't particularly strident, but she is upfront about the fact that she's against pretty much every single part of Defiant society and government. She's so committed to being contrary, in fact, that when the flight goes out to dinner she reflexively orders a different-colored drink than everyone else.
  • Stealth Insult: Kimmalyn was brought up to be polite, so she tries to only insult people in ways that they don't realise are insults.
  • Stealth Sequel: While not in the Cosmere, Skyward takes place in the same universe as Sanderson's novella Defending Elysium.
  • Technologically Advanced Foe: Zig-Zagged. The Krell interceptors are faster than Defiant fighters, and have more powerful shields and destructors, but they have no IMPs or light-lances.
    • Explainable if you have read the prequel: The Krell are actually using stolen human technology that they don't really understand, so they can only reproduce the basics and have no ability to create new tech of their own. But since the humans they stole from were several centuries ahead of the ones that built the Igneous manufactories, the tech they do have is much more advanced than what the Defiants can build.
  • Unobtanium: The humans have no ability to make the acclivity stone that allows their ships to levitate, so it is immensely valuable. They have to salvage it from debris that falls from the broken defense fields orbiting the planet. The Krell are aware of this and destroy acclivity rings in debris whenever they get a chance.
  • Unusual Euphemism: “Scud”. Used by everyone as a swear word as if it were the F-word.
  • We Have Reserves: While pilots are valuable, they are less rare than ships, so pilots are taught to attempt to save their ships no matter what. If a cadet ejects, they are automatically expelled from the school. Cobb finds this policy ludicrous and tries to pound into his class to eject when in danger. Hurl refuses to, and dies. Spensa does, and is thrown out of the school. Spensa is in a similar situation again later, the difference being that ejecting would doom Alta—she doesn't eject. She still doesn't save Alta with the maneuver, but she's proud she did the right thing anyway.
  • Wham Line: At the climax, while running an impossible race against destruction, M-Bot starts reciting his usual litany of system statuses.
    M-Bot: Self-repair: offline. Destructors: offline. Biological component engaged. Cytonic hyperdrive: online.