Big Big Sky by Toronto punk author Kristyn Dunnion is perhaps the strangest book I’ve ever read. But I mean strange in that’s it’s wonderfully weird in a way that makes your brain stretch a little bit in a direction it’s never gone before. It’s certainly not a novel that I would recommend to everyone, but for science fiction and dystopian fiction enthusiasts and for people who just want something a little bit different, it’s a fascinating, adventurous story exploring a dystopian future world through the eyes of five female warriors, who, despite being brainwashed to be killer assassins, are super compelling and complex. You become all the more attached to them because, unlike other young adult science fiction and fantasy I’ve read lately, the stakes are pretty high in this book: you are actually worried about the main characters dying.
It’s a challenging read right from the start, because Dunnion has created this totally bizarre futuristic slang, and the novel is written in this slang from the get-go. After orienting yourself, however, the slang is a lot of fun, and really adds to the experience, mirroring some of the ways of thinking in the girls’ world. Like, the book starts like this:
Sometimes it’s harder to think to kill than pod might think. I crouch in the dark, staring into the manimal’s shining eyes. It blinks right at me. It shakes in fear. Its thrumping furred chest quickens my own pulse. It licks its full lips and I feel the send. Or do I? It’s not Loo, and it’s blaaty not me. The thing wave-sends a sonic roll of pure emo: terror, disbelief, and a wee glimmer of hope. … I freeze. ‘Blaaty whafa, Rustle?!’ It’s Loo, yelling and pushing me forward. ‘Be fit!’ she shouts, but there’s no use. … ‘She’s–,’ I start to say, but Loo interrupts. ‘It. It dies in the now. ScanMans’ orders.’ ‘It’s wary scary Pod-like, Loo.’ I say. ‘I can’t do it.’
Have no idea what’s going on? That’s okay, neither did I when I started reading this book. But you’ll eventually sink into the slang, as well as into the high stakes, edge-of-your-seat, innovative plot and world. You follow the five girls as they are free themselves from the repressive alien-controlled society they have been brought up in. Along the way, some of them die, some transition into a kind of post-human / human-animal hybrid species, one becomes a mother, some are captured and tortured, and some betray their “pod”—the warrior group to which they have sworn loyalty.
If the description so far sounds weird, well, this is a weird book like I said. You should be prepared for the likes of something you have never read before. There are, however, some themes that you’ll recognize: namely, female bonding and the idea that each girl can “kick ass” in her own way. Some of the outlandish pieces of plot, namely the bizarre transformation of two of the girls into human-animal hybrids, have some interesting parallels with puberty. Teens going through puberty and feeling that their bodies are perhaps not their own will identify with the girls’ confusion.
Other strengths include Dunnion’s knack for showing, not telling, readers the strengths and personalities of her characters, all of whom have distinct, complex personalities, histories, and goals. None of the girls are even close to stereotypes. Another stand-out feature is the fact that the book does not focus on men or relationships with men at all; other YA fantasy or science fiction books such as Throne of Glass feature strong female assassins, but still spend so much of the plot time invested in women’s relationships with men. This is why the Bechdel test is so important!
Fittingly, then, Big Big Sky is also hella queer, in the stretchiest sense of that word: technically you have female-identified characters hooking up with each other, but they’re pretty post-human (one of them turns into a giant black bird later, another turns into a fish-human hybrid). At the beginning of the book they live in an all-female society. When they meet human men later on, they call them “strange beasts” and use the pronoun “it” to describe them, which is unbelievably awesome.
Although Big Big Sky does have this awesome original, exciting plot, it is sometimes lacking in physical description of environment, location, and character, which, on the one hand, can make imaging the girls and their dystopian world hard. On the other hand, the relative absence of character and species description lets the reader imagine a significant amount for themselves, which some people might enjoy. I would have rather had more description, especially of what the characters looked like!
The only thing I think doesn’t really work is that given that you are simply dropped into this strange world, a prologue explaining the context would probably be useful. The publisher’s blurb on the back of the book attempts to do this, but does not really succeed and then does not provide the synopsis you usually expect. Basically you just end up being kind of confused for long enough that some people might not keep reading, which would be such a shame because Big Big Sky is really an amazing, mind-blowing book
Overall, even though Big Big Sky is a pretty challenging science fiction read, it’s really rewarding. It’s the kind of novel that will leave you thinking about it weeks after reading. You’ll definitely want to convince other people to read it so that you can talk about it with them! If you liked and/or read 1984 or A Brave New World but thought they could have used a queer / feminist / punk re-telling, Big Big Sky is a book you should definitely check out!