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Nick James and His “Skyship Academy” Trilogy: “Boy Books” for Everyone

Nick James is a modern American writer known for his Skyship book series. His prose combines sci-fi action, steampunk adventures, and coming-of-age drama. Described by the author himself as the “boy books,” they were primarily targeted at teens and tweens, yet managed to strike a chord with wider audiences and become bestsellers.

Working as a substitute school teacher, Nick had a chance to study his primary reader pool, not to mention that he was once a teen boy engrossed in books himself. Yet what made the world of Skyship resonate with people of all age groups and genders? Let’s find out.

Early Inspirations

Every skilled essay writer dreams of becoming a full-fledged author someday. However, Nick took his passion for writing to a whole new level while he was still in elementary school. A little assignment that a school teacher gave the class of writing a story and binding it as a book with construction paper resulted in a shelf load of tomes, including a comic book series, themed action figurines, and a collection of trading cards. That poor teacher definitely got more than she bargained for! – and no wonder.

Nick grew up in Anacortes, a small island town in Washington, where there was little to no entertainment for a young kid, so, as he recalls, “imagination was often a prerequisite for a good time.” When bored, he would whip out his action figurines and create fast-paced storylines full of unpredictable plot twists, double-crossings, and cliffhangers.

This peculiar pastime grew from Nick’s love for comic books by writers like Brain K. Vaughn and Brian Michael Bendis. The most exciting part of this format for him was the big drama, snappy dialogue, action, and vivid visual nature of the medium. Yet, first of all, the story.

The dynamic plot-driven action series in a purely textual form also captivated his imagination. Notably, he enjoyed following the adventures of Maximum Ride, Artemis Fowl, and Alex Rider.

Coming-of-age stories are another inspiration behind the Skyship Academy trilogy, namely: Feed, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Among other sources for the style of his work, James names movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: The Judgment Day, TV series like Buffy and Firefly, and animated comic book adaptations like Trigun, Freaks & Geeks, Misfits, Roswell, and 1960s Batman.

Last but not least, Nick James is passionate about music. He says that sci-fi and futuristic bands have set the tone for the trilogy. The heaviest influence came from Superfamily, Sound of Arrows, Pnau, and Muse, among others.

All these diverse inspirations made Nick James author books that are a unique blend of sci-fi, dystopia, adventures, steampunk, and coming-of-age stories. It’s fair to say that there is everything for everyone in his creations.

Nick James’ Style

Nick James combines compelling narratives and gripping plot twists with a humorous, tongue-in-cheek attitude and subtle nods to works that inspired them. Sometimes it’s a direct reference; sometimes, it’s more like an Easter egg that only fellow fans can appreciate.

Despite the light-hearted attitude and humor, his books are not parodies of the genres he mixes together but loving appreciations. Nick’s books are self-aware and playful with clichés, sometimes subverting reader’s expectations and sometimes catering to them with a nudge and a wink – an attitude that makes him an interesting read regardless of your age.

Targeting the younger end of the YA audience, Nick strives to write an action-packed fiction that will be interesting for everyone, adding depths to characters and internal struggles that make them relatable and interesting to follow.

His recipe for a magnetic book is simple: a good story, well told, a plot with tension, boys that do more than blow stuff up, girls that do more than look hot, and humor, humor, humor. Spice it up with puzzles, cool vehicles, explosions, and cliffhanger endings – and you get a book that holds you glued to the page. Yet the most prominent feature of Nick’s style is visual, descriptive writing. Partly because comic books were such a formative influence on him growing up and partially because he always perceived reading a book as watching a movie inside your head. This makes Nick James’ prose particularly compelling for everyone who prefers entertainment from the most powerful and ancient graphics card humans have at their disposal – imagination.

Nick James’ Method

The story of the Skyship trilogy has been forming gradually over the years. Nick James started writing consistently when he entered college. He never intended those manuscripts for publishing but devoted a fair amount of his time to honing his writing talent and fleshing out the world and the characters. By his own admission, it took him five “practice” novels to arrive at the point where all this material started to shape the future Skyship Academy. At this point, he decided he wanted to share this story with the rest of the world and began looking for a publisher.

He said that the details of the worldbuilding and complex relationships between the driving forces of the narrative weren’t always planned ahead. If you have ever written anything longer than a note, you definitely fall into one of the two categories: writers who outline and writers who freestyle. Nick James confesses that he is very much a freestyler, so the big chunk of creative work is done while revisiting and questioning the first draft.

Despite the setting of Nick James’ novels being a distant future of the planet Earth, with all kinds of fantastic technology bordering on magic, the creator of the Skyship trilogy always intended it to be rooted in realism. He insists that the more outlandish the concept you, as an author, introduce in your fiction, the more connected it must be to something mundane and familiar to your reader, at least metaphorically. Fiction always plays games with the universe asking, “what if?” This is a safe place to escape and have fun, but also to interrogate the past, make sense of the present, and speculate about the future. This realism extends to characters as well since they are intelligent and likable but also flawed, giving them space to grow and overcome their foibles.

In his many interviews, Nick James insists that the Skyship Academy trilogy is not a dystopia, despite the grim hellscape of a ravaged planet, corrupt and conspiring government, and humanity split apart into antagonistic factions. First and foremost, it’s a coming-of-age story set in a sci-fi-flavored world to make it interesting. The author described it in one interview as “Star Wars meets Breakfast Club.” Adventures, puzzles, obstacles, and character growth are the moving forces that propel the plot forward. Unlike Hunger Games or Divergent, romance doesn’t play a significant part in the conflict and stakes. However, with the main characters being 15 to 18 years of age and the intended audience being upper elementary school kids, there are some crushes and triangles, obviously.

The Skyship Academy Trilogy

So, what is the story about? Three books: The Pearl Wars, Crimson Rising, and Strikeforce, tell about the adventures of the two protagonists – Jesse Fisher and Cassius Stevenson – living on the devastated Earth, struggling to survive and make sense of the world in order to protect it.

In the fallout after the unthinkable catastrophe, the American government is seized by the Unified Party. This entity is formed by the country’s three major political parties forced to work together to stay in power. The climate drastically changes, and the Earth swiftly becomes an unlivable desert. The Party funds the fifty Chosen Cities protected by the Bio-Nets – artificial ozone layers that shield the dense city population from dangerous conditions on the Surface. In return, the Unified Party demands unwavering loyalty and expensive Environmental Tax. All dissidents are driven out into the Fringes – the parts of the Surface that aren’t protected from the elements and are hot and barren.

To power the Chosen Cities and the Bio-Nets, the government needs Pearls – mysterious orbs that fall from the sky and serve as the only energy source on Earth. To find said Pearls, the government trains Pearlhounds – operatives prepared for this dangerous job since adolescence.

Yet they are not the only ones hunting for the fallen Pearls. Living on the Skyships circling above the clouds in the Earth’s stratosphere are the rebels that have forever been at odds with the Unified Party ruling on the Surface. One of the ships serves as a Skyship Academy – a training ground for the agents who are taught to retrieve and bring back the Pearls, which the Skyship Community needs as much as the Surface does.

The Pearl Wars introduces us to the world and the main characters. The first-person narrator is Jesse Fisher, a Skyship slacker who doesn’t show any talent or application. Still, the teachers have a particular interest in him for some reason. Another hero is Cassius Stevenson, a young Surface Pearlhoud eager to impress a powerful woman known only as Madam, a mother figure to him. The two boys meet as adversaries but are forced to cooperate in uncovering the secret of the Pearls – and some mysteries of their past they never knew they shared.

Crimson Rising finds Jess and Cassius shocked by their discovery at the end of the previous book, and their world turned upside down. Jess returns to the Academy, smuggling a mysterious red Pearl onboard. At the same time, Cassius flees from the Unified Party into the North. Unknowingly, they might have triggered the destructive chain of events threatening the future of humankind.

Strikeforce picks up in the middle of the alien invasion when the embittered faction of the Earth must unite to deflect the imminent deadly attack. Jesse and Cassius hold the last hope for humanity – not only because they help to forge fragile alliances but because they possess a unique gift. Their powers might as well be Earth’s last chance for survival.

The books change in tone and pace, becoming less character-driven and more action-packed from book to book. Still, if you appreciate the sci-fi genre, you should definitely check them out. I have been a sci-fi fan from the way back, and I must say, the trilogy hit me right in the nostalgia. Even though I’m not the intended audience age-wise, the books somehow transported me back to the times when I was, and it was a journey worth having.

Unfortunately, Nick James didn’t come up with any new installments recently. It seems his interests shifted entirely towards music – specifically, K-Pop, the main subject of his blog and Twitter feed. However, one can hope that Nick will once again pick up the pen and write more face-paced fiction with incredible plot twists and relatable characters.