A Sky of Wretched Shells is Mark Blackham’s debut novella and the third in the Cuba Press novella series (after Zirk van den Berg’s I Wish, I Wish and Where We Land by Tim Jones). It contains warnings around climate change and is an interesting mix of speculative fiction and science. The protagonist is a 15-year-old boy named Mala, who lives on the island Woleai “not far from now, not far from here.” Mala is curious and questions what he sees around him, such as the mysterious red lights lurking off the shore of the island. Woleai is so far unaffected by the changes wreaking havoc across the world and no one is sure why.
When two scientists arrive on the island, Mala’s scientific curiosity is ignited. It becomes his mission to help the scientists discover why life on the island is so healthy when the rest of the world is slowly dying. The language used is descriptive and captivating. The way Blackham describes a beach has left a vivid picture in my mind: “Plastic shrouded boulders and rock pools like death-bags…Ranks of tiny acrylic beads marked out retreating tidelines.”
The author takes time to introduce the characters and world. I enjoyed this as it gave me the opportunity to connect with the characters and their lives.
The novella deals with big themes that relate to the challenges and questions the world is currently facing including how we care for each other in stressful times. When the two scientists arrive on the island, they are carrying a sickness. The people on the island warn the couple to stay away and isolate so the illness doesn’t spread to them. Mala cares for the scientists when almost everyone else keeps them at bay. These positive messages about looking out for each other are especially powerful now as the world grapples with managing Covid-19. The island’s strategy of isolating itself also echoes Covid-19 lockdowns.
I loved the beautiful cover of the novella and the visual details that have been woven into the book, such as the barcode shaped like a wave and the shells representing scene breaks. I enjoyed studying the maps included at the beginning of the novella – they brought me closer to the characters and gave me a clearer idea of the setting. Mark Blackham was inspired to write A Sky of Wretched Shells by a trip he took to Micronesia 30 years ago. You can feel his connection and familiarity with the island throughout the story.
The characters are well-rounded and I felt an immediate connection to Mala. They have interesting mannerisms and quirks that make them come to life. For example, Dune likes to fold blades of grass into shapes: “Dune dropped the grass, now folded like an accordion, and picked up another piece.”
There were only a handful of named female characters and I thought that they were sometimes portrayed as damsels in distress. For example, when Mala and the scientists swim across a channel, they encounter several manta rays. Mala and Dune are calm and even excited but Adrina, the female scientist, is scared and even shrieks when one goes past: “Adrina’s breathing was fast. Mala kicked over to her and held her hand. ‘It’s okay.’” The chief’s son, Akal, is a very creepy character. The way he watched Adrina sent shivers down my spine.
The ending was a surprise that I didn’t see coming. Blackham leaves things open, which I enjoyed as I could speculate what would happen to the island and the characters next.
Overall, I enjoyed A Sky of Wretched Shells and was drawn in by its blend of science and fantasy. This mix resulted in a unique, and captivating read. I would recommend this novella to young adults who like science and the supernatural.
Reviewed by Denika Mead