For our Reading is Magic book club this month, we’re reading Brandon Sanderson’s young adult science fiction novel Skyward. And I’m loving it so far. It’s fast-paced in a way that makes the book feel action-packed, even when there aren’t crazy fight scenes happening at every chapter. But perhaps my favorite thing about the book so far is that the main character, a teenage girl named Spensa, is so relatable.
When it comes to protagonists in fantasy and sci-fi, one of the main complaints is that they are often too perfect — they’re just mysteriously skilled at whatever they do, and they can do no wrong. Often this stems from the “chosen one” trope, where the story’s hero ends up being a prophesied messiah of sorts. In YA fiction specifically, the problem can be related to teenage characters who don’t act like teenagers. They may seem more mature than their years, running around like little adults. Or, on the flip side, they may make mistakes that are much too foolish to believe even a seventeen-year-old would make.
But what I love about Spensa in Skyward is that I totally buy her as a teenage character. There are a few reasons for this, from her family background to the tightrope she walks between arrogance and insecurity.
One of the main things I relate to is her connection to her father. The prologue is a sweet scene of Spensa as a seven-year-old, exploring the caves with her dad just before he dies. Jump forward 10 years, and we see that she wants to follow in his footsteps and become a pilot. She even keeps his pilot pin as a cherished memento.
She also has realistic relationships with her living family members — notably her tough grandmother, whom she admires, and her mother, who seems more practical and ready to reprimand Spensa sometimes. Spensa loves listening to her grandmother’s stories about ancient heroes, but as soon as her mom shows up, she’s ready to skitter off to avoid punishment for skipping school.
It’s her obsession with becoming a pilot that also makes her feel like a real teen. I’m sure there are exceptions to this out there, but from my experience, most teens go through phases of interests that border on obsessions. Digging into something so intensely is a way of exploring who they are. For example, as a teenager I became obsessed with researching different periods of history. Then I studied Russian. I wrote a ton. I had a bunch of passions, and I wanted to be an expert on whatever the latest one was because I was trying to build my identity around it. I’ve heard of others who identify with the world of the sports they play or follow, with the subject they like best, or with a certain subculture they can join. I think this is something many teens naturally do as they figure themselves out.
For Spensa, her passion is flight — which is why she attends all of her school classes about war history and flying, but skips the others. She can name and draw every ship that’s ever existed, but she doesn’t know anything about algae. This just rings so true to me!
I also enjoy how the novel includes Spensa’s schooling. Even a lot of the worldbuilding is through her school. For example, the students in her grade have been hearing lectures from visiting workers explaining their jobs; each comes from a different field supporting the cavern communities they’ve built together, and each takes pride in the job, no matter how menial, as it contributes to the welfare of all. Meanwhile, Spensa wants to take the exam to become a pilot. The book makes it clear that this is the most revered job one can have, and as Spensa studies with her friend, they’re both nervous about passing it.
Alienation and bravado
Another reason Spensa feels like a true teenager is that she bounces between confidence and insecurity so frequently — something I believe many teens do. For example, she initially seems determined to pass her pilot’s exam. It’s all she dreams about. She’s studied hard and knows everything there is to know about flight. But when she learns that no one will take her seriously because they believe her father died a coward, she almost doesn’t show up to the exam. Her confidence — or her belief in her ability to achieve her dreams — is shattered.
This also speaks to that feeling of isolation so many teens go through. It can feel like you’re the only one who is going through something tough. Or that the entire world is gaining up on you. It’s dramatic, but when I was a teenager, I was the center of my universe. (I still am, but now I’m wise enough to at least know I’m not that important!) Spensa acts the same way, becoming angry and alienated when she thinks everyone is against her.
But she gets her courage back. When she meets a pilot who acts as teacher to the local flight students, she has the nerve to disagree with one of his points about war. Though she catches herself afterwards, she doesn’t go so far as to apologize or back down from her position. Like so many teenagers, she has a bravado sparked from her obsessions — a false belief that she knows best despite having no real experience yet.
So far, I really enjoy Spensa’s sense of adventure as she explores the caverns, sometimes leaving her family for days to hunt rats. Now that she’s working on the ship that she’s discovered, her determination is even stronger. It’s very clear while reading this that it’s a YA novel, partly because the language is so straightforward but, more importantly, because Spensa is such a believable teen hero. I can’t wait to see what she does next.