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Book Review: The Sky People by S.M. Stirling

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As a kid, I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and loved his interplanetary tales of romance and adventure. Give me a rocket ship, a sword, and a boon companion, and I would have ridden out at once to fight the most dastardly of villains threatening the most beautiful woman in two worlds.

Sadly, that kind of fiction has almost been killed off by real science rearing its head and declaring that no, we’re not gonna be finding any intelligent life on any planets in our solar system. Sigh. I really wanted a Martian friend. Just one would have been fine. Seriously. But I had to grow up and put the idea of Martians and Venusians behind me.

Thankfully, S. M. Stirling came up with the idea of an alternate history series showcasing intelligent life on Venus and Mars, and wrote two books about those planets. He delivers old school adventure in The Sky People, and I had a blast reading about Ranger Lt. Marc Vitrac, a Cajun-born and bred soldier turned interplanetary security guard and explorer. Vitrac is cut from the same blue-collar roots as many of Burroughs’ heroes, and I found him quite likable from the outset.

I also enjoyed Stirling’s take on what Venus would be like in his postulated 1980s (which seemed a curious choice to me, but I guess that made the history part of the alternate history combo offered). The ICE controls for tapping into the brains of the dinosaur-like creatures was awesome, although I’m sure they weren’t PETA-approved.

Stirling does a lot to point out that the Venus colonists weren’t able to just ship over everything they needed. Most of their tools and supplies have to be manufactured from local materials, and the author succeeds very well at making all of this believable.

The first section of the book sets up the romantic triangle that’s dangled before the readers, which is also another staple of many Burroughs' books. I got a little tired of it, but Stirling takes it in a different direction than I’d expected. The homage to Burroughs isn’t just in the plotting or the imagination. There are several direct mentions of the author and the books throughout the novel. Rather than detract the experience of reading The Sky People, the references almost make everything more real.

I especially enjoyed the zeppelin sequences as Vitrac and his companions travel over unknown lands to find a downed Russian spaceship in a rescue effort. The aerial fight with the flying dinosaurs was exciting and alive with action. Then the overland travel to get back home mixes in with a plot to save the planet from an ages-old threat.

True to form, The Sky People ends on a cliffhanger, though Vitrac’s story is evidently tidied up, and I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, the sequel about Mars. If you ever discovered and loved Edgar Rice Burroughs, these are books that would carry you away to familiar planets that shouldn’t exist in the universe as we know it. Great fun.

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