“Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” by Alix E. Harrow

Thanks to Liz for making me aware of this ebook-only short story by one of my new favorites, who has not written nearly enough books yet.

Our narrator, Oona, was “born in 1892 on the banks of the Mississippi, in that muddied, mongrel part of the world where East and West are separated only by the coalsmoke-scummed river.” Her mother was an Amerind, of the West; her father an Easterner, “one of those scruffy, perennially drunk men who float down the river like driftwood.” Oona never knew him. She is therefore a mixed child, “half of one thing and half the other,” born to be a mapmaker. “In our language, the word for mapmaker is also the word for traitor.”

Oona is indeed a mapmaker as a young adult when we meet her. Mapmakers in this world do not make maps, but rather hold the world in place, literally, while it bucks and reshapes itself to defy easy travel; she works for the Easterners who hope to conquer the shifting, untamed West for their own profit. She is therefore a traitor to her Western roots. But mapmaking was the only source of reasonable income available to a young orphaned woman with a dependent: her younger brother Ira is ill, and her employers hold him hostage, his care and medication in exchange for her continued service. Until Oona must lead her hated boss to a bone tree – what Easterners would call a graveyard, and Oona’s people might call “the trees that take up the dead to sing for seven generations.” And things change again.

My greatest complaint with this short story is that it is short. Oona is compelling, caught in a moral quandary, bound by her love for her brother whose love for her will have hard consequences… and caught between East and West, two halves of herself. This world is both recognizable (themes of traditional lifestyles versus colonialism; exploitation, self-determination and magic) and foreign (magic). Harrow uses footnotes in this story, an opportunity for a little extra narrative musing, and the tricky use of outside sources that imply authority in a work of (yes) fiction (her sources too are fictional). The whole thing is both fun and moving. I’m just sorry it’s over. Well worth the pennies it cost me. Write more, Alix!


Rating: 8 malevolent stars.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

Mortal children are very wise, though it takes a careful listener or a god to understand this.

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin’s debut) and The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods closes out the Inheritance trilogy. It is getting hard to parse my favorites out of her body of work, but this one ranks high. (Spoilers for books one and two follow; for this book, however, this review is spoiler-free.)

Book one dealt with Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth, and her transformation to one of the Three. Yeine and Nahadoth, by the end of that book, had regained power, sending Itempas into exile and a strange, repeating mortality – he can die but always comes right back. In book two, we saw a mortal ‘demon’ (one parent is mortal and the other a god or godling) form a relationship with the exiled Itempas. In book three – as its title promises – we continue to develop the relationships between the Three and between gods, godlings and mortals. Jemisin continues to develop the rules of this wide, wild world – the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the mortal and gods’ realms, the heavens and hells, and the possibilities of all these worlds. It’s quite expansive, so that the surprises keep coming, in ways I really appreciate. Jemisin is not cutting corners, changing the rules to suit her; but she does let the worlds and the rules keep expanding and changing.

Here, the central character is for the first time not a mortal (Yeine, Oree) but a godling: Sieh, the Eldest Child, the first godling, and although he is the eldest, also the god of childhood, youth, playfulness, impulsiveness; he most commonly manifests as a child or as a cat. (He was also the first god or godling that Yeine met, so we have known him longest.) I’m not sure if it’s just that this is the book I read last, but I might love Sieh’s voice best of all. I don’t want to say too much here, but – the world is changing, for mortals and gods and godlings, for the Three, for Sieh, in ways that are both stimulating and scary. The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been. I did not want this book to end.

And, oh! More wonderful news came in the ‘extras’ at the back of my paperback edition: usually there is a teaser excerpt here from another Jemisin series, but this was a short story, “Not the End,” which turns out to be an epilogue of sorts to this very series – I could not have been more overjoyed with that. (The novel itself has a “Coda” but more is even better! Ha.) I would love to think that this is indeed “not the end” of the Inheritance trilogy, but I fear that it’s up to my imagination from here.

I will continue to read all the Jemisin. She’s one of my favorites.


Rating: 9 surprises.

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the Inheritance Trilogy comes The Broken Kingdoms. (I’ve already begun on book three, The Kingdom of Gods.)

Spoilers from book one – not this book – follow.

So, we are continuing in that world in which Yeine becomes a god – or, lives her partner-soul’s god-life. In this installment, we switch protagonists, but continue with a first-person narrator who is still just learning about the world in which she lives and what role she plays in it. Here, the narrator is Oree, who like Yeine is an immigrant from the outer kingdoms to the center – but unlike Yeine, who arrived with some privilege, Oree lives not in Sky proper but in Shadow, the surrounding city where the great tree blocks most of the sunlight. Oree is a working artist who sells her wares in the street to pilgrims, other travelers from outer kingdoms come to pay their respects. (In the new world, it is uneasily permitted to worship not only Bright Itempas but other freed gods and godlings.) Oree is also blind, or nearly blind: she can see magic. Magical objects and places and people glow, and this aids her otherwise dark world. She lives in Shadow because there is so much magic there: she can see better. Or, to put it better, she is drawn to magic. Vision is a happy side effect. Her blindness is fascinating not least because she works as a visual artist, and does her best work as a painter.

This gives Jemisin the opportunity to do some interesting sensory work, playing with the visual arts and other senses, like the smells and textures that accompany different colors of paint. I love the way Oree’s vision and blindness work with magic. Here and in other plot threads, we continue to develop this fictional world and its rules – what happens when gods and mortals have babies, for examples. Also as in book one, there is a mortal who shares sex – and maybe even love – with gods and godlings. This series does involve romance, and sex. We’re talking about only one or two sex scenes per novel, but they are some of the best I’ve read.

Oree is a lovely protagonist and narrator, with a complicated past, frustrated and foolhardy – or brave – enough to stand up to those in power, godlings, even gods. She takes in a mysterious stranger and discovers a murdered godling, and finds herself embroiled in matters way over her paygrade – or are they? Jemisin continues to explore big themes (like the sins of our fathers, for example). Not for the first time, I am reminded that even in sci fi/fantasy, the lessons can be very much about humans. (I’m thinking again about the Lilith’s Brood series, as well as the rest of Jemisin’s outstanding work.) Also, this series is undeniably sexy. I’m pretty excited about book three, and looking for more.


Rating: 8 windows.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Brilliant again. I have a new favorite author. Write more, Alix Harrow.

There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest of three sisters, the one left behind. Their mother died when Juniper was born; their late grandmother, Mama Mags, had been a beloved teacher and friend, but their father was abusive. As the book begins, this youngest sister – the wild, reckless one – has left her family’s rural land and headed into the city of New Salem, a fugitive from justice and alone in the world. Imagine her surprise when she immediately encounters the middle sister, the strongest and the beauty, Agnes Amaranth, and the eldest, Beatrice Belladonna, a bookish woman (quiet, listening) now working as (of course) a librarian. She is further surprised to learn that Agnes and Beatrice have not been in touch since they left her behind all those seven years ago.

So opens The Once and Future Witches in the spring of 1893. New Salem is vibrating with the tension of women’s suffrage and the backlash of a mayoral candidate who claims to offer “light against the darkness” but would really like to reinstate Old Salem’s treatment of suspected witches. Both issues turn on the question of women’s power, or whether they should have any at all. Juniper is predictably full-speed-ahead, unhesitant to stop at any mean’s – including Mama Mags’s spells or wholesale violence – to advance women’s freedoms. Beatrice is inclined to keep her head down. Agnes has been working hard to scrape a living on a mill girl’s salary, and she’s just discovered that she’ll need to scrape as well for the baby she’s carrying. However, despite their wishes, it seems that the Eastwood sisters are tied to each other’s fates – and to the possible return of the Lost Tower of Avalon and the Last Three, Maiden, Mother and Crone, those fabled witches from back when women held real power.

Witching has perhaps not died out entirely. “Back home every mama teaches her daughters a few little charms to keep the soup-pot from boiling over or make the peonies bloom out of season. Every daddy teaches his sons how to spell ax-handles against breaking and rooftops against leaking.” “Witch-blood runs thick in the sewers,” it’s said: poor folk have held onto the minor spells and charms longer than respectable ones have. And if witching sounds very gendered so far, never fear. The Eastwood sisters will explore all sorts of boundaries, including the question of whether men can work women’s magic and vice versa, and whether those categories even make sense. They will find romance with people of various genders; they will reassess the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone. (“Every woman is usually at least one of those. Sometimes all three and a few others besides.”) They will learn to question what it really takes to be a witch in the first place.

This novel is a lightning-paced, page-turning read at over 500 pages; but it does a lot of twisty-turny work in that space, too, and I don’t want to do much plot summary for fear of spoilers. Harrow’s world-building is delightful, but part of the delight is watching the rules shift and change. The sisters do band together, and there are big fights to be fought, along with the other women – and men, and people who challenge those labels – of this big, diverse, fascinating world. (The novel remains set in New Salem, but the battles are decidedly global.) I love how intersectional are the issues: the vote for women, witchcraft, labor rights, class, race, sexuality and gender, pockets. (“This is the precise reason why women’s dresses no longer have pockets, to show they bear no witch-ways or ill intentions.”)

I adore these characters, and the way they both play to type (Maiden, Mother, Crone) and subvert them. Juniper is obviously a hero – she’s the one who knows that “the trick to doing something stupid is to do it very quickly, before anyone can shout wait!” But Agnes and Bella (who eventually drops the more staid ‘Beatrice’ for her mother’s-name, Belladonna) offer perhaps more depths and complexities. Juniper’s devotion to the cause, and to her sisters, could hardly be questioned; but because they spread their loyalties a little further, Agnes and Bella arguably have to make harder choices to stand by what they believe in. There are many loveable, interesting secondary characters, but it is Miss Cleo Quinn, fearless Black journalist and very special friend to one of the Eastwoods in particular, who holds the fourth spotlight on this stage. She has secrets and baggage of her own, but once committed, she never looks back. A handsome union organizer and an older librarian show that men have a lot to offer in this world, too. And that “men really ought to try offers of fealty rather than flowers” more often.

There is so much to love here. Complex plotting, thorough world-building, lovely, growing-and-changing characters, humor, romance, intersectionality, women’s rights, librarians and scholars, badassery. I’m completely sold, just need more from this author.


Rating: 9.5 snake’s teeth.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin remains outstanding. I can’t get enough.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in another trilogy (hooray!), and again I’m hooked. At its start, we meet a narrator who writes,

I am not as I once was… I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

Her narrative comes in fits and starts; she sometimes has to back up and restart, because she is truly trying to remember as she tells her story. Her mother was an heiress of the privileged, ruling class, who gave up her birthright to marry a man from outside that class. Yeine (our narrator) has grown up in Darre, her father’s land. At nineteen, she is a chieftain there, and recently orphaned, when she is called before her maternal grandfather, effectively ruler of their known world. After considerable travel, she arrives at his court at Sky where he names her his heir, which shocks everyone – Yeine herself not least – especially because he already has two competing heirs. And so Yeine is thrown into a dangerous game of politics and intrigue, peopled by players she does not know.

Except not just people.

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades in between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

And the dangerous game that Yeine is now playing, against her will, involves various gods as well as ruthless people.

I love the plotting and intrigue, and the characterization. I love the mythology of gods, their relationships and shifting allegiances, and that old concept that the gods are apt to be just more powerful versions of us, in all our pettiness and flaws: “We made you in our image, remember.” There are some positively dynamite sex scenes (sex with a god), and some very relateable human moments: missing one’s parents, struggling to figure out an unfamiliar culture, and (one that the romcoms love) a so-called barbarian wrestling with becoming a princess overnight. I also appreciate the nuances in narration by a character whose identity, whose very self, changes over the course of her story. Yeine’s issues with memory are challenges of perspective, too.

As usual, Tor.com has written an excellent review (in this case by Kate Nepveu) that I’ll direct you to here, borrowing just a brief snip:

…the book is beautifully paced, with plot happenings and worldbuilding revelations coming at just the right intervals to make the book extremely hard to put down. It surprised me considerably more than once, and while other people may be better at predicting plot than I am, the book doesn’t depend on surprise for its force.

What can I say? Worldbuilding, plot, character, narrative voice, twists and turns. Can’t wait for more. Buy any & all Jemisin.


Rating: 8 marks.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

While I’m willing to allow that this might not be a perfect book, it is the perfect book for me.

(I am, however, super irritated by deckled edges, which my paperback does have.)

From the author of those Fractured Fables that I love, this previous (longer) novel is absolutely delightful. I’m reminded of that lovely line from The Princess Bride, about how the story has everything. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” That’s a thing I love in a story: the containing of everything, and that’s how I feel about this book, which (bonus) centers a love for storytelling and the power of storytelling to very literally change the world; and also tattoos.

When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden- or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.

When I was seven, I found a Door.

January Scaller is the narrator of her story, and she frequently addresses the reader directly like she does here, which is a narrative device I also like. It’s not the right choice for every story, but here it allows us to feel close to January, who is conscious about her choice to tell her story in her way. Also like The Princess Bride, actually, there is a book within a book. January finds (is gifted? mysteriously?) a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and as she reads it, so does the reader, so that there are two narrative threads running side-by-side until they, naturally, meet and converge.

January is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke in rural Vermont. She is seven in 1901, when he takes her on a business trip where she finds that first Door. Her father, Julian, works for Mr. Locke, but he is almost always traveling; January is devoted to him but rarely gets to spend time with him, and when they are together, he is distracted. Her past is an enigma, but she is aware that she is privileged to have Mr. Locke’s favor, especially because she is “odd-colored,” a sort of coppery-red, with irrepressible hair. She knows fairly young that she lives in a world where it is best to be white, and she is not that, but Mr. Locke says she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” and he is a collector of unique specimens. (If this makes you uncomfortable, good.) “Sometimes I feel like an item in Mr. Locke’s collection labeled January Scaller, 57 inches, bronze; purpose unknown.”

The Door that January finds takes her to another world. And the book she finds later tells her more: that Doors are real and not the imaginings of a lonely seven-year-old. That there are “other worlds than these” (to quote the Dark Tower series, and my references to other stories here should confirm the universality of this story-about-stories). January is eventually inspired, by the book she finds and by events in her own carefully controlled (by others) world, to take the reins of her own narrative. And then things get really wild.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is sprawling, in the best way: January winds up learning about many worlds, about language and languages, the power of storytelling, her own history, the nature of love and of trust, and so much more. She has the most outstanding, incorrigible, infinitely loyal dog ever. And there is a world in which words are powerful beyond our imaginings, “where curves and spirals of ink adorn sails and skin.”

I do not mean they have power in the sense that they might stir men’s hearts or tell stories or declare truths, for those are the powers words have in every world. I mean that words in that world can sometimes rise from their ink-and-cotton cradles and reshape the nature of reality. Sentences may alter the weather, and poems might tear down walls. Stories may change the world.

Now, not every written word holds such power–what chaos that would be!–but only certain words written by certain people who combine an innate talent with many years of careful study, and even then the results are not the sort of fairy-godmother-ish magic you might be imagining…

I am, personally, additionally charmed by the power of tattooed words in that other world. You get the idea: this lovely, dreamy, heartfelt story not only has everything, but has a few framing elements – storytelling, tattoos – that speak to me in particular. (I will say that books about the power of books might be taking an obvious advantage, since the readers of books tend to be people who like books. But I’m on board with this.)

In the nature of the finest quest narratives, January is surrounded by a motley crew – a grocer’s son, a woman from another world, that mad wonderful bad dog (whose name is Bad) – and together they will accomplish unlikely things.

Harrow is herself a gifted storyteller. This is a book to get lost in and to stay up all night for. I’m genuinely really sad it’s over; I’ve ordered everything Harrow has ever written. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 10 worlds.

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is Book three of the Broken Earth trilogy (following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). I raced through this series and am now a firm Jemisin fan. I’m just trying to take a breather before I begin the next of her trilogies, to make them last.

Book two left us with a fairly clear trajectory for this last installment: mother Essun and daughter Nassun had been separated for some time (approaching two years) and were at odds. Nassun has found a new parental figure in – of all people – Essun’s former Guardian (and antagonist), Schaffa. She harbors great resentment toward her mother, who was hard on Nassun – for reasons we can perhaps understand, but still hard for a child. (Orogeny may be a fiction, but this parent-child friction is thoroughly familiar.) Essun wants to find her daughter, but sees practicalities as well, and has been developing her own bonds with the community of Castrima, which feels like both a gain and a liability to her. Still the two draw together, and not just because of the mother’s need to be with the daughter. They share an interest in opening the Obelisk Gate, although they mean to do two very different things with that power.

For me, this book fits all the needs of a final book in a trilogy. We got satisfying character development in several corners. The concerns felt like they deepened both in personal realms (Essun, Nassun) and in larger, world-scale areas (literally, the world ending again BUT BIGGER is what’s at stake here; also, development of secondary characters means I care more about the whole world than I did in some earlier installments). By the time we get to the final, highest-stakes scenes, I feel the impact at every level. Pacing is an interesting issue here: I always felt compelled to get back into this story, but I was also able to put it down several times even in the final few scenes. It had a draw on me, but not a compulsory, stay-up-all-night magnetism – and I think this worked out as a good thing, even if it sounds like a criticism at first. For one thing, this book is 400 pages long, so thank you, Jemisin, for allowing me to take breaks. Also, while I felt the momentum of the story, I also felt able to pause and luxuriate in it in a way I found really enjoyable.

Point of view is another super interesting question to consider. Book one, The Fifth Season, was told in third person, in all three subplots. Book two, The Obelisk Gate, was in second person (the “you” voice), with a specific character-speaker addressing a specific character – but I didn’t realize who each of them were until pretty near the end. Here in book three, that same speaker is still addressing the same “you,” but now I’m on board, and it changes the way the story unfolds. It also implies a future, an “after” timeline in which the speaker can address the audience, which is a fascinating trick.

As I consider this series as a whole, I don’t think I’ve given enough recognition to the themes around the environment and climate change, and major, disruptive climate events, which of course are what Seasons are in this world… They are more than the climate events in our “real” world, but analogous, with the addition of a bit more awareness and purpose. Here, Father Earth is a sentient (and sinister – or merely self-defensive?) being, with motivations, prejudices, and grudges. It’s yet another interesting aspect to consider about the world Jemisin has built (especially because I’m more accustomed to Earth being referred to as a mother – Mother Nature, certainly). So much to consider here! and maybe because I’m so enjoying teaching my literature class this semester, but I find myself thinking in terms of some of our elements of fiction – point of view, character, theme – as I write this review. (I just today, in class, compared this novel to Zadie Smith’s story “Crazy They Call Me.” There’s a connection, promise. Extra credit if you figure out what it is.)

I’m rambling now, but that’s still a commentary on this novel and this series, which sends my brain off in all directions. This is good stuff.


Rating: 8 light-starved mosses.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Book two of the Broken Earth trilogy went past like lightning, unsurprisingly. (Mild-to-moderate spoilers for book one – but not book two – follow.)

At the end of The Fifth Season, Essun – the latter-day identity of girl we knew as Damaya and the woman we knew as Syenite – was hiking south in a particularly nasty Season, in search of her missing daughter. She had picked up one companion, a strange boy named Hoa, and then another, an equally-but-differently strange woman named Tonkee (who we will learn also wore a different identity in earlier times). The extremely oddball trio had arrived at an apparently abandoned comm (for community) called Castrima, where they had been sort-of-invited, sort-of-taken-prisoner into a hidden but thriving comm underground of Castrima. There, other reunions: Alabaster had also taken up residency, for one. Castrima is a unique settlement in that it tolerates orogenes, even works to attract them and is led by one. That doesn’t mean that all relations are good, though.

The Obelisk Gate alternates between two storylines: that of Essun in Castrima-under (in a Season and under duress), and that of Nassun, Essun’s daughter (the first time we’ve met her). Nassun’s story backs up in time to allow us to follow her from the start of the Season, and her father’s murder of her little brother, until Essun’s narrative present. Essun learns more about the various people (stills, orogenes, and stone eaters) she’s cohabitating with, and continues to learn under her mentor Alabaster, whose own story is drawing to a close. Nassun finds a mentor as well, another character we know (and have decidedly mixed feelings about) from book one. She grows as a mightily powerful orogene and begins to navigate the liabilities of that power. Mother and daughter draw nearer to each other, not geographically but in common traits and efforts. Book three seems sure to follow that drawing-together.

The obelisks themselves, of the title, are important to the outcome of the world in this series; their power and the power to guide and steer them are central to the stories of both Essun and Nassun. But they feel much less important to me than the character arcs and relationships at play – Nassun and Shaffa, Nassun and her father, Essun and Alabaster (and Tonkee and Hoa and Ykka and Lerna, etc.). Plus, the obelisks get a little more technical, both in the science side of the sci-fi and the magic side of the fantasy. And that stuff is always less interesting to me than the human element (even where it’s not entirely clear who is technically ‘human’).

I love, love, love the complex nature of this fictional world and how full and thorough its rules and customs are. I feel well convinced that Jemisin has done the backstory work to know how its parts operate even in ways that aren’t spelled out on the page. It’s compelling and absorbing, a world to lose myself in, which I value highly. I’m excited about book three (and sorry to see the series close, but happy to have bought a whole ‘nother one already!). Jemisin’s characters are convincing: there really isn’t a one of them that I adore and admire entirely, because they all have their considerable flaws. But they’re very real, and I care what happens to them.

This writer is a master.


Rating: 8 boilbugs.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I got sad that there’s still no sequel to The City We Became, so I chose one of Jemisin’s sci-fi trilogies to try while I wait. And it is so good, you guys. I’m already feeling withdrawal from this fictional world.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that keeps ending. It appears to be much like the world I live in now, only much later? (Or earlier? Sometimes the two can blur.) This world has just one continent, as far as its inhabitants know, and it is a very active one. “Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.” There are ruins scattered around from previous civilizations, that preceded earlier Fifth Seasons, those times when the puckering, heaving land goes a little nuts (tsunamis, blows [volcanic eruptions] and shakes [earthquakes] being the most common issues) and life becomes extra difficult for a period of years. (The book offers two helpful appendices, one a catalog of Fifth Seasons and the other a glossary of terms, most of which were easy enough to suss out by context clues, anyway.) Such an unstable world has sprouted an empire (naturally), a caste system, numerous injustices, and policies meant to help its subjects weather the Seasons: storecaches of food, clear divisions of labor, Seasonal Law. This world is peopled by different kinds of people, too. Some of them are “still,” but others have the power to move the earth. These are orogenes (or the derogatory ‘rogga’), and they can use thermal, kinetic and other forms of energy to control and even cause seismic events. Some of them are controlled and wielded in turn, so to speak, by a class of persons known as Guardians. And then there are the stone eaters…

Jemisin’s narrative centers around three characters, three woman orogenes, in three different, distressing points in their lives. We learn about the possible paths for orogenes from their experiences. One of them is navigating a Season after having just lost a child. Another has been trained at the Fulcrum, and is now being sent out on a humiliating assignment. And one is just a girl, frightened of her own power and identity, newly embarked on the world. As each woman’s story advances, we learn more about the single world they share. There are secrets to be revealed, but not much goodness. (When I say I miss this fictional universe, it’s not because it’s pleasant.) I love a big, complex otherworld. And I loved these characters – not just the main three, but a few others as well. Jemisin’s characters have facets and nuance. I appreciate characters who can be flawed and problematic and maybe not people I’d even want to be friends with, but with whom I can feel such strong connections. That’s true to life.

Also, there are pirates.

Lovely worldbuilding, full and complex and deeply layered, plenty deep enough to get lost in. Despite the presence of those two appendices, which I didn’t find until the end!, I was always more or less clear on what was happening (also true to life: when are we ever on entirely solid ground?). Great characters, beautiful writing, opportunities for philosophical pondering, and some superlatively clever plotting. This book has it all; what’s not to love? Jemisin is a rock star (no pun intended).

I’ve already ordered books 2 and 3 in this trilogy, obviously. And somebody had the very clever idea to include, at the back of this book, snippets from the first books in two other Jemisin trilogies as well, so I ordered one of those at the same time. Good thing she’s written plenty. Stay tuned.


Rating: 8 kirkhusa.
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