When the Sky Fell on Splendor, Emily Henry (Razorbill 978-0-451-48071-2, $17.99, 340pp, hc) March 2019.
The publisher makes a direct comparison to Stranger Things in the dust jacket copy for Emily Henry’s latest, When the Sky Fell on Splendor. While I can see some similarities – teens on bicycles in a sleepy midwestern town who encounter something otherworldly with very negative results – I find that the novel owes much more to the movie Super 8 than the Netflix blockbuster. First, there was an accident at the nearby steel mill that set the stage for some human drama, second these teens are out filming (for their YouTube series) and finally, the book certainly seems (even from the cover) to be more of a story about extraterrestrials rather than parallel worlds. So fans of Super 8 take note: you are going to be particularly pleased by what you find here.
Splendor OH labors under the weight of a tragic accident at the local mill five years earlier. There were multiple deaths and injuries and an ensuing economic fallout from which the town has yet to recover. For high school student Franny, the accident not only left her older brother in a coma, but set off an emotional explosion in her family that resulted in complete and utter destruction. She and her brother Archie found solace in a group of friends who were similarly impacted by the accident. The six of them call themselves the Ordinary and tool around Splendor trying to avoid thinking about what their lives are like while filming cheesy semi-scripted paranormal documentaries. Everything is a diversion from what life is like now because no one wants to deal with what life is like now. As the novel opens the group has taken their show to an abandoned house for a night of filming. Then something crashes down from the sky into a nearby power station and it gets really paranormal really fast. When Archie goads them all into taking a closer look, they get more than they bargained for and find themselves forced to investigate what happened while coping with the physical ramifications of whatever they saw – and touched – that night.
Henry does a very good job of working two strong narratives through When the Sky Fell on Splendor and not letting either feel neglected or secondary. Franny, the protagonist, is severely affected by the power station encounter but is also still suffering from the mill accident. As she tries to rationalize the sudden scars that have appeared on the group’s arms and torsos, as well as the various strange abilities they are manifesting (electric shocks, nightmares, visions of the future, etc.), her lingering trauma from the accident prevents her from being fully honest to herself or anyone else. She’s not the only one keeping secrets (there is a whole lot of undiagnosed PTSD going on in Splendor), but readers will not be frustrated by this. When you consider the emotional baggage they have all been carrying, well, you don’t expect them to make the best choices right away.
Happily, there are parts of When the Sky Fell on Splendor that are exactly as they should be – something mysterious happens in a small American town and so of course nefarious federal agents show up! At more than one point the teens have to run and hide, and there are some very real threats they must neutralize. No one suddenly becomes a superhero, but there is a great battle with a girl’s field hockey stick that I dearly enjoyed. There is also a heroic dog (spoiler – no dog death in this story!) and a recluse who holds a secret that must be revealed. Oh, and there’s a tornado, because why not? Let’s make it all even more difficult for The Ordinary to survive!
Emily Henry has crafted a thoughtful book with some appealing characters and an intriguing plot that has a heck of an ending twist (I was not disappointed). There should be some comparisons to Stranger Things and Super 8 and even The Goonies, but only in the way that all of them are as much about the kids and teens involved as they are about the circumstances they find themselves in. When the Sky Fell on Splendor is about something otherworldly, but it’s also about six teenagers trying to navigate their way through some serious personal darkness, and that is an adventure anyone can get behind.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2019 issue of Locus.
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