Marcus, the 14-year-old hero of this series-launching novel, is the crown prince of Heliopolis, a mountain-top kingdom perched in socially stratified layers over an impenetrable cloud barrier. The kingdom can conduct trade and war with other mountain realms by means of airship, but none of these sky dwellers knows anything of what goes on at the surface level of their world. This dissociation is used effectively as a metaphor for Marcus’ alienation from his people, and for the whole of the sky dwellers’ alienation from life on their own planet. When a palace coup brings Marcus and a tough little group of his subjects literally down to earth, the enmities and alliances they create in their efforts to regain Heliopolis symbolise the gruelling struggle to overcome this alienation.
At page level, this is an action-packed page-turner, crammed with semi-technical talk on weaponry, aeronautics and mountaineering, but softened with warmer stuff about comradeship and loyalty. There are times when the dialogue becomes stilted and the dilemmas clichéd, and the obviousness that this is part one somewhat diminishes the tension (though the climactic attempt to climb back up to Heliopolis is indeed a cliff-hanger). This is a promising introduction to a vividly imagined world.