SPFBO Review: Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon

Symphony of the Wind Steven McKinnon cover

This is the latest in a series of reviews for the top ten finalists in the SPFBO contest. I am not affiliated with the contest in any way, which is a good thing, because the contest is long over and I’m still working through the last of my reviews, heh. This current book, Symphony of the Wind, came in fifth place.

Symphony of the Wind takes place in the kingdom of Dalthea, which is struggling to recover from a brutal war. On what came to be known as the amberfire night, the capital city was struck by the magical equivalent of an atomic bomb, causing large-scale loss of life and widespread environmental devastation, including but not limited to cutting off the kingdom’s main water supply. In order for the people of Dalthea to survive, airship crews of “raincatchers” must harvest rainwater from the sky. This story begins when, on what starts out to be a routine rain-gathering mission, a crew of raincatchers finds themselves the target of a deeply-rooted conspiracy. Meanwhile, a retired ex-soldier must consider returning to the field after learning that his former lover might not have died in the bombings like he thought, but suffered from something much more sinister.

This book has a lot of different POV characters, but the two main ones are Serena, an orphan with ambitions of being a raincatcher, and Gallows, a former soldier who wants nothing more than to leave the past behind him and never think about it again. These two characters seem disconnected at  first, and indeed they hardly interact for more than half of the book. But ultimately it turns out that their fates are a lot more interwoven than they  previously believed.

I think my favorite part of this book was the world-building. I do have some quibbles, though it might just be my own confusion and not the fault of the author’s. For instance, the magic nuke strike has left them unable to use their harbors without passing through deadly magical radiation. However, they are bordered on the other side by impassible mountains. It wasn’t clear to me whether that made Dalthea entirely cut off from the rest of the world. There is reference to a train station that was supposed to represent peace and trade with a former enemy nation. Where does the train go? Can they still get out of their country?

Furthermore, the war ended with their city getting nuked and largely cut off from the rest of the world. This might have been part of a conspiracy — spoilers! — but as far as any of the common people know, the enemy infiltrated them and set off a nuke and wrecked their country. Yet many characters often make references to how the Daltheans “won” the war. Goodness, if this is what happened to the winners, I hate to see what happened to the losers.

These mysteries, however, only serve to make me more interested in the setting. The world of this book is imaginative, well-designed, and vividly described. I almost felt like I was in the city of Dalthea, and I could feel the plight of the people struggling to rebuild their lives after what is essentially nuclear war. The numerous characters, major and minor, feel like real people with wants and desires of their own. The prose, characters, and dialog are also well done, and I was immediately drawn in from the first pages.

The thing about Symphony of the Wind, however, is that there’s a lot going on. A lot. Symphony is the longest by far of the SPFBO finalists, and the pages are jam-packed with subplots and intrigues and new mysteries around every corner.

The only problem is, while we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters, we never really get to see enough of them. Many individual POVs fail to get the attention they deserve. The individual POV sections are short, too, which makes the story at times hard to follow. I would just be getting into the thread of one character’s arc, only to have the section cut off abruptly and have to follow someone completely different. There was also a thing where a character would be casually referenced by name without any cue as to their role in the story, and I’d be scratching my head trying to remember if maybe they were introduce a hundred pages ago and I just forgot. I think a lot of the minor POV characters — for instance, the sex worker trying to protect her child, or the airship captain’s girlfriend with a mysterious past — were interesting enough that they could have been main characters in their own right. However, since they were not the main characters of this book, I felt like giving them their own POV slowed down the plot so much as to be tedious. I appreciate all the loving and intricate work that went into the interconnected side plots and world building, but unfortunately, I also feel like this book could have been improved significantly by focusing on two or maybe three central characters and removing a lot of the side POVs.

With all these quibbles I probably sound like I hated the book, but that isn’t the case at all. I found Symphony of the Wind to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, and look forward to reading more in this series.

People who might like this book

  • Fans of steampunk
  • People who like multi-POV epics
  • Anyone who loves rich and complicated plots with a lot of interconnected secrets

People who might want to avoid it

  • People who like books with fewer POVs
  • Someone looking for a shorter, lighter read

2019 r/fantasy bingo squares

  • Self-published
  • Local author if you happen to be from Glasgow
  • Title has four words