In January 2314, Rowena Savalas – a curator of the vast archive of the twenty-first century’s primitive internet – stumbles upon a story posted in the summer of 2024. She’s quickly drawn into the mystery of the Is it autobiography, fantasy or fraud? What’s the significance of the recurring number 381?
In the story, the protagonist Fairly walks the Horned Road – a quest undertaken by youngsters in her village when they come of age. She is followed by the ‘Breathing Man’, a looming presence, dogging her heels every step of the way. Everything she was taught about her world is overturned.
Following Fairly’s quest, Rowena comes to question her own choices, and a predictable life of curation becomes one of exploration, adventure and love. As both women’s stories draw to a close, she realises it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or as with the quest itself, it’s the journey that matters.
Thank you Solaris for sending me an early copy for review.
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley was my first big introduction to spec-fic and I’m so excited every time she releases a new book. Three Eight One is a fascinating mix of far-future and past (or maybe present, or recent past??). The bulk of the story is a coming-of-age heroes quest style tale following a girl named Fairly, and there’s also interwoven in, by the way of footnotes and a prologue, a far-future narrative where it seems that people’s consciousness’ are interwoven and you can choose to be ‘born’ into an organic body.
I found Fairly’s tale to be a traditional quest narrative with some surprising twists thrown in. Imagine a fantasy land that intersects with our own technological present and you’re somewhere close to the reality Fairly lives in. There are tiny creatures called cha who seem to act as guides or helpers, but there real purpose is up for interpretation. I think that’s what I really loved about Three Eight One, you can read it just as the words on the page or you can choose to interpret the events however you wish. And with the footnotes and future-story you see that it starts to almost take on a mythological element where Rowena (the future narrator) tries to prise meaning from the story.
I totally devoured Three Eight One. Once I learnt to lean into the weirdness and accept whatever was thrown at me without trying to make complete sense of things I was taken on a journey. You just have to trust that Aliya is taking you where you’re supposed to go, and she is. As with all good spec-fic the end goes truly weird and nowhere near where you expect it might.
I became quite fond of both Fairly and Rowena. Fairly because you witness her struggles and revelations. Rowena because you hear from her far less but you learn tidbits about her life and time through the footnotes. She too is also experiencing a type of coming-of-age and is trying to find her place in her interconnected time.
I can’t sing my praises for Three Eight One enough. It’s truly a journey and it’s a thrill to just follow where Whiteley takes you. You won’t be disappointed.