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.

Imago by Octavia Butler

Following Dawn and Adulthood Rites is Imago, the final book in this trilogy, which I am sorry to see the end of. We’ve shifted narrators again: Lilith brought us through book one, then Akin for book two, and now we meet Jodahs, another first of its kind. Like Akin, Jodahs is a child of Lilith’s family, and her own (human-born). When Jodahs reaches metamorphosis, when Oankali and constructs (Oankali/human offspring) reach sexual maturity, a surprise: instead of becoming male as was expected, Jodahs begins to become ooloi, the Oankali third gender that is neither male nor female. Ooloi have extensive abilities to heal and changes themselves and others, and it had been thought still too risky to introduce human-born ooloi at this stage of the two species’ trade. Jodahs is a mistake, and a potentially dangerous one. But it quickly becomes clear that in its uniqueness it may have some special abilities to offer as well.

Imago is told from Jodahs’ point of view, as it struggles with its own needs and the challenges of coming of age. One early solution that is offered to the problem of Jodahs’ very existence is that it be exiled to a ship away from Earth; but Jodahs is a native of Earth, and quite reasonably pushes back against this idea. It’s the first of its kind, not wanted where it is from, and threatened with being sent “back” to a place it is not from. (The parallels to slavery are unmistakable.) It has overwhelmingly strong urges, toward sexual and other connections, but its people don’t want to allow it to pursue these urges, which are natural but also unprecedented (because Jodahs is unprecedented). I am still marveling at Butler’s worldbuilding here, that I’m so absorbed and bought into the rules of her invented peoples. It’s lovely.

There is commentary on human nature: the old human contradiction, as Oankali see it, of intelligence with hierarchical behaviors. Humans among themselves struggle with racism, xenophobia, sexism and sexual assault, and homophobia. When faced with Oankali – that is, something different, non-human – humans frequently react with fear and hostility. Even when they feel drawn to an ooloi, for example (and the ooloi have this power, to make themselves irresistible), they can feel revulsion mixed in. The trilogy has much to say about xenophobia and race, colonialism, agency and freedom of choice, and also gender. I love that the ooloi have to repeat that they are not male and female, not both, but a whole other thing. They still get misgendered and mis-pronouned. Jodah is asked if it wants to be male: “Had I ever wanted to be male? I had just assumed I was male, and would have no choice in the matter.” It’s also about community-building in ways that I love. Building communities, families and societies is just as hard in Butler’s fictional world as it is in any other dystopia I’ve encountered, real or fictional (because people). This is all good commentary on human tendencies, while at the same time being very fine, escapist fiction.

For more, especially some excellent thoughts on the book’s title, check out Erika Nelson’s “Playing Human” essay at Tor.com.

I love this series and think everyone should read it.


Rating: 8 tubers.

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Book two in the Lilith’s Brood series (following Dawn) is Adulthood Rites. We get a new protagonist and first-person narrator, although Lilith is still an important figure. The worldbuilding remains thorough and engrossing, and I’m still all in for book three to come.

In this novel, we are back on Earth, which the Oankali have worked to make safe for human occupation. Humans live there in two kinds of communities: either side-by-side with the Oankali or without; the latter group are known as resisters. The Oankali have engineered it so that Humans (I capitalize as Butler does) cannot reproduce without their intervention, so the resister communities are childless (although very longlived, also through Oankali intervention; this allows the narrative to work for decades, with Humans who remember life “before” but remain childless). Their inability to reproduce defines and obsesses the Human resister communities. The hybrid communities have children, known as ‘constructs,’ blends of Human and Oankali, born to both Human and Oankali mothers. The narrator is Akin, the first male construct born to a Human mother: Lilith. This first male-construct-born-to-Human is an important and risky step. The Oankali are nervous that he will carry too much of the Human Contradiction: intelligence and hierarchical thinking.

The baby-obsessed resisters are inclined to steal construct children. They are also inclined to hate them, because they don’t look Human enough. (This feels like plenty of metaphor to start with, but it goes on.) Akin is kidnapped very young by Human resisters who both crave him (baby!) and revile him (for his Oankali characteristics). This book is primarily the story of his own conflicted relationships with the two parts of himself. And, of course, we get to see Human survivors of an apocalypse do what we more or less expect them to do. They weaponize, rape, kidnap, and kill each other. It’s sobering (although I don’t find it the least bit surprising). Akin will wind up with a unique perspective on humanity, both as the first of his kind and because of his lived experience, and in the end he may hold some power over the future of humanity.

Post-apocalyptic narratives like this have become commonplace since this series (Adulthood Rites was originally published in 1988), but even in a now-crowded field, Butler stands out. The different traits of the Oankali, and their earnest failure to understand humanity’s protests against them, offer plenty to think about. To have a child who is a mix of both types is (again) ripe metaphor, and a fascinating opportunity to think about blended identities. Lilith tells Akin,

Human beings fear difference… Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek different and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

Which of course is commentary on xenophobia, but also on that sense of having opposing types in one person (which I think we can all empathize with, one way or another).

There is also plenty to consider about family and social structures. Construct children have five parents (at least until something happens to them): male and female Human and Oankali parents, respectively, and an ooloi, the genderless Oankali who makes fertility possible, who ‘mixes’ the baby. “All interconnected, all united–a network of family into which each child should fall.” And Lilith’s Brood is centrally concerned with ideas of agency, consent, free will, and personal choice. It’s an enormous amount of philosophy to take on, for a book billed as science fiction… or perhaps (as next week’s author interview will point out!) it’s a falsehood and a shame that we expect less from sci fi.

Killer reading. Butler’s a master.


Rating: 8 guns.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.

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.
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