On browsing through the dustier corners of my book stacks recently I came across an unfamiliar book by an unfamiliar author: The Sky Lords, by John Brosnan, which was published in 1988. I initially assumed that I had read it, but I could not recall anything about it. However, the cover displays some impressive endorsements from Robert Holdstock, Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss, so I thought it was worth a try. When I got to the end I discovered that it is only the first volume of a trilogy, but as I enjoyed it I obtained the other two: War of the Sky Lords (pub. 1989) and The Fall of the Sky Lords (1991). This review covers all three volumes.
The plot starts out being fairly routine in SFF terms, in a distant future in which the Earth's civilisation has collapsed as a result of the Gene Wars - an advanced form of biowarfare. The only organised powers remaining are the Sky Lords of the title - a handful of heavily-armed mile-long airships whose aristocratic rulers demand food and other tribute from the scattered and impoverished settlements on the ground. However, there is a lot going on including pre-collapse genetic modifications of humanity which had led to the wars of destruction. To make matters worse, the blight - mutant fungus - is spreading over the land, destroying its agricultural worth. And the airships are gradually failing as as their inhabitants no longer possess the skills necessary to repair them.
Jan Dovin is a Minervan, a female member of a ground-dwelling culture which had solved the problem of male violence against women by genetic modifications. These made the women bigger and stronger than the placid males which were kept only for breeding. An attempt to resist the tribute demanded of the Minervans led to Jan's transfer to the Sky Lord where she meets Milo Haze, whose genetic modifications are more radical - although not at first evident. After various adventures, Jan discovers how to communicate directly with the AIs which control the Sky Lords.
In the second volume, we are introduced to a new element; a submerged habitat under the Antarctic, the home of the Eloi, drastically modified humans who live only for pleasure. There is also a new hero, Ryn, a young man who is a genetic throwback to earlier times. He and Jan become involved in battles between the rulers of the Sky Lords, not just in the air but also on the ground.
The third volume pulls the various plot strands together and sees the Eloi's habitat becoming involved in the struggle for supremacy. Its powerful AI retains much of the advanced capability now lost to the survivors of humanity. This enables it to develop a permanent solution to the constant warfare which is preventing the recovery of human civilisation, but this comes at a cost.
I found this trilogy rather puzzling: the basic setting of warfare between giant airships (emphasised by the cover illustrations of the paperback versions) has a very old-fashioned feel. It has more of the flavour of fiction from the 1950s or even earlier. The most obvious clue to its modernity is the frank treatment of sexual relations. However, the inventiveness shown throughout the books is engaging, and makes them worth reading.