High-flier, Sophie Mance
J L Pawley
Recommended to me as a sci-fi thriller in which the author “actually knows how birds work,” J L Pawley’s debut novel, Air Born, is sure to be a high-flier in New Zealand YA fiction.
Air Born was originally self-published by the author under the title First Flight. It quickly became a Wattpad sensation, attracting over 1.5 million reads. After working with Pawley, it was published by Steam Press in late 2017. Since then, the book has been sold internationally and was recently released in Russian. It’s easy to see why the book took flight. Its host of diverse characters are genuine and believable and its plot, while similar to other YA books like the Maximum Ride series, has Pawley adding her own unique twists.
The story follows a group of seven 17 year olds who’ve all, with no apparent connection, grown wings. When Tyler’s “wingbirth” is captured on video, it goes viral, drawing the flock of six other “Icari” (from the Greek myth Icarus and Daedalus), as they christen themselves, together to form the “Flight”. It was nice to see Pawley spread her metaphorical wings across the globe and include protagonists from all over the world and of all different races.
However, no sooner than the first two Icari meet do the necessary antagonists arrive. There’s the Angelists, religious fanatics who, while unnerving, are nothing compared to the sinister Evolutionary Corporation. On the run (or should I say fly) with only a tenuous link to a Beijing fertility clinic and the inexplicable urge to fly, the Flight band together to figure out who they are and what they’re capable of. Camped in the Arizona desert in their own “flight school” – a far cry from Tyler’s time in the Air Cadets – things seem to be looking up for the group, until a dramatic (if slightly unrealistic) showdown sets the scene for the second book in the quartet.
Of the seven protagonists, I felt two really carried the story. There’s Tui, the warm-hearted, Maori-Samoan girl who adds a taste of New Zealand to the American setting with her dry humour: “’Is there an actual plan?’ I said. ‘Now that we’ve sussed the rescue, the car chase, oh yeah and being shot at. Apart from hanging out like one big happy whanau of course.’” Her frequent exclamations of “sweet as” are also guaranteed to make a New Zealand reader either smile or cringe!
Mexican Miguel was living with his grandmother before she passed away and inherited from her his belief in God: “The whole of Heaven spread out above me, inviting me to soar among the stars.” Of the Flight, he seems the worldliest and the most conscientious. Through him, Pawley attempts to bring in some deeper themes: were they given wings for a divine purpose and are the Flight really human anymore? I did feel that these could’ve played a larger role in the book, as they were only touched on in the campfire discussions of the Flight: “I don’t think we technically count as human anymore.” In saying that, Pawley’s writing style really shines through the interaction of her characters in the moments of calm. Through multiple viewpoints (a tad confusing at times), she allows the reader to empathise with the characters and understand the group dynamic: “Most of us still didn’t want to talk about our past, myself included. It was still too painfully close. However, as the days flew by, the absence of any visible threat meant that the Flight started to really live again.”
For a sci-if book, the author’s knowledge of flight was clearly grounded in reality and her attention to detail had the Icari creating tails in order to be able to fly properly. However, noticeably lacking was any concrete explanation of how the Icari came to be, beyond some vague allusions to an IVF clinic. In the past few years, the field of genetics and, in particular, gene editing, has taken massive steps forward with the development of CRISPR technology and is the focus of many ethical debates. Unfortunately, there was no reference to any of this in this First Generation Icarus book, which is somewhat of an oversight by the author. lt will be interesting to see how Pawley’s exploration of genetic manipulation develops in the rest of the series. I’m hoping that she chooses to keep her books closely tied to reality, contrary to the similar Maximum Ride series in which James Patterson’s sci-fi take on human flight quickly becomes absurd.
It seems no YA book can be complete without the addition of romance. Here, Air Born really ruffled my feathers.
Editor's note: It appears to me that Pawley felt it was necessary to follow the convention and, as a result, the pairings between some of the characters felt forced and artificial. The Shakespearean love triangle, when combined with the multiple viewpoints in the story, is confusing and has the reader feeling as though they’ve been dropped into A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Overall, Air Born is a solid four stars, with well-written, genuine characters, a simple, effective and mostly original plot and a smattering of humour. While it’s lacking the creativity and flair of Obsidio, the current YA sci-fi sensation, Pawley’s novel is an enjoyable read, with relatable characters and a taste of Kiwiana.
Sophie Mance is 16 years old and attends Wellington High School.