After a shocking courtroom tragedy, a disturbed Vietnam veteran and the vindictive judge who sent him to prison become an unlikely pair of time travelers in a chaotic multiverse. The fallen angel who rescues them wants to guide them to a radiant new life. But first they must return to the scene of a ghastly crime.
Billy Worster was a naïve teenager ill-prepared for the gruesome realities of war. The sole survivor of a deadly massacre in a Vietnamese jungle, he avoided certain death only because he ran away when the shooting started. Riddled with guilt, he comes home to a dusty Texas farm with post-traumatic stress disorder and the crazy notion that he can fly in and out of parallel worlds.
As Billy struggles with addiction and questions his sanity, he is arrested on a drug charge and ends up in the courtroom of Judge Madeline Johnston, a bitter old judge tormented by a dark secret surrounding her father’s death. She callously tosses Billy into prison, but when a greedy executor files a lawsuit to steal his inherited land, Billy is hauled back to her courtroom in chains, where a stunning twist of fate launches them into the sky on an odyssey of discovery and healing.
Spanning forty years from the jungles of Vietnam through infinite, parallel worlds, Rip the Sky examines how the power of forgiveness can lead us toward a better life, no matter how many worlds we may live in.
In the midst of all his difficulties, Billy learns that he can fly. Not literally, but his spirit can leave his body and find its way to other universes – “patches of Eden,” if you will, where he can see flashes of other lives he could live. In one of these patches, he encounters a man who tells him what he must do to find his best life in his true home, Braithwaite. Will Billy be able to do as he’s asked and find the true life he craves?
Mark Packard has given us a parallel universes story that isn’t quite like any other I’ve read. It reminds me a bit of The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter in that some universes are good, some are decidedly not. But unlike the protagonist in The Long Earth, Billy seems quite unaware of what causes him to fly. He can tell when a flight is coming on, but he doesn’t seem to be able to control it or trigger it.
The story touches on some pretty heavy topics: PTSD, the horrors of war, addiction, family dysfunction and betrayal, learning how to forgive others and oneself. Madeleine, in particular, has to learn to let go of past hurts and forgive those who caused them. Faith also plays an important role in the story. The theology expressed here doesn’t line up exactly with the Christian faith to my reading, as it isn’t being saved by grace through faith that moves them toward their best lives (presumably eternity and some form of heaven), but rather their progressing through certain actions. But they must have faith that they can achieve that best life in order to get there.
The ending was genius in my book. Were Billy’s experiences all real? Were they the products of a mind so stressed by daily life that it had to escape somehow? Packard crafted a closing that left me wondering and brought a tear to my eye. This doesn’t read like a debut novel, and I hope to read more from Mark Packard in the future.
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