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Cytonic (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

The third in Brandon Sanderson's Skyward series is perhaps not quite as impressive as the second, Starsight, but still packs in enough to make it a good read. Interestingly, where Starsight triumphed in terms of action sequences, the best bits of Cytonic for me were more talky and philosophical - but filled in huge gaps in exactly what is going on in the series, particular in terms of the nature and motivation of the mysterious delvers. Not as action packed, then, but more fulfilling in its revelations. 

Broadly we get three acts here - the first is a kind of mission quest across a Roger Dean-like (and surely Roger Dean-inspired) floating islands, the second involving some of the starfighter flying action that Sanderson does so well, and the third the talky bit, which had a touch of van Vogt about it, for SF oldies who might appreciate the reference. (Speaking of Roger Dean's art, the Barbie-like proportions of the central character seem to get more extreme with every cover, bearing in mind she's 5 foot 1 tall in the book.)

Pretty well all the action takes place not in the real universe, but the 'nowhere' that ships pass through when travelling faster than light. It's amusing that the up-front dedication (as opposed to the lengthy acknowledgements at the end) refers to getting physics guidance, as one thing this place lacks is good physics - specifically, the conservation of energy. It's very convenient to keep the plot line simple that no one in the nowhere needs to eat, for example, but you do wonder how they get their energy.

This non-physics underlines what is the most important thing about the Skyward series as it is developing - it's not really science fiction. Like the Star Wars films, it is a fairy story that makes use of SF tropes. That's not a bad thing - I loved the original Star Wars trilogy - but accepting this is essential to be able to make use of the right suspension of disbelief to read the book if you are into real science fiction. Sanderson even underlines this by making explicit referral to storytelling and inhabiting a story.

Once you pick up this idea, the parallels with Star Wars are strong. Not only in the central character from a hick location who becomes a space jockey and then a user of mental 'cytonic' abilities. But also, for example, in the way that all the aliens are just humans with a different shape (with the exception of the delvers, whose difference is here explained), in the juvenile aspects that are particularly strong in the first novel, not to mention in the irritatingly pompous-yet-cute entities. (Remember ewoks, anyone?)

I ought to stress that I am not putting this forward as a negative. Apart from finding the quest section a little episodic, the book was highly enjoyable to read (based on having read the previous titles - I wouldn't recommend it standalone), with some clever twists. And I am looking forward to the way Sanderson develops the new complexities added at the end of the book in the already promised sequel, Defiant. But don't expect sophisticated SF, because that's not what this book is about.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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