It was a pretty nice burlap sack. Not the best he’d had the pleasure of inhabiting, not by a long shot, but it wasn’t bad either. The jute was smooth and woven tight, not letting in an inkling of light or location. It didn’t chafe his cheeks either, which was a small comfort.
The chair he was tied to was of considerably lesser quality. Each time Detan shifted his weight to keep the ropes from cutting off his circulation little splinters worked their way into his exposed arms and itched something fierce. Despite the unfinished wood, the chair’s joints were solid, and the knots on his ropes were well tied, which was a shame.
Detan Honding is a young noble with a mysterious past, now in hiding from the authorities and supporting himself through a life of crime. By contrast, Ripka is a thoroughly upstanding citizen, captain of the city watch in Aransa, and there are very few circumstances that could ever persuade her to ask Detan’s help with anything. Unfortunately for Ripka’s peace of mind, just about all of them are happening.
Aransa is a desert city with unbearable daytime temperatures, and its scorched climate informs everything about the setting, but its most striking feature is the Black Wash, a stretch of unshaded black sand where condemned prisoners walk to their deaths. The city’s main source of income is its selium mines, where sel-sensitive miners work in teams to extract the helium-like gas. Against this backdrop, an illusionist with illicit powers of selium manipulation is out for vengeance, using her skills to masquerade as others as she commits a series of murders.
Selium itself gives an interesting basis for the technology of Aransa. As a lighter-than-air gas, it’s used in the balloons of airships to provide a lift, but that’s far from its only use. Alcohol is laced with the stuff; it’s injected into hollow weapon handles to improve the balance. And in the hands of accomplished sel-sensitives, it can be shaped and controlled in seemingly limitless ways — hence the Valatheans’ determination to control every sensitive in the empire. Those with moderate skill are obliged to work in the mines or as airship pilots, but the official penalty for doppels — those capable of mimicking another’s face with a thin layer of selium — is death.
I always enjoy a good anti-hero, and Detan delivers as a witty, sometimes reckless, but ultimately kind-hearted conman. His wavering alliance with Ripka gives them both cause for concern, but in the face of bigger dangers, teaming up together seems the only option. Ripka’s journey from loyal captain to someone prepared to play more loosely with the law, as she comes to understand the grey shades of morality that surround her, is beautifully done.
There are also some excellent, complex villains to be had. Thratia arrives in Aransa looking to get elected as warden, but she’s been exiled from Valathea for her brutal methods, putting Ripka on edge from their first encounter. Detan’s attempts to steal Thratia’s fancy airship give this book its title, and although that is far from the only thing going on between these pages, the theme of airship theft is a recurring one despite the many twists and turns of the plot. Meanwhile Pelkaia, the illusionist, has simpler and more deadly goals, although she’s motivated by grief rather than power, which makes her a little more sympathetic. And Callia, a scientist with an interest in selium-related powers, is Detan’s worst nightmare but appears to sincerely believe herself to be working for good.
Steal the Sky works well as a standalone adventure, but the ending hints at more interesting times to come for Detan and Ripka, their various friends and foes, and the whole of the surrounding lands. I’ll definitely be looking out for more in this world.