How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Obelisk Gate, by N K Jemisin

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Publication date – August 16, 2016

Summary: This is the way the world ends, for the last time.

The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night.

Essun — once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger — has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power – and her choices will break the world.

Review: It’s probably no surprise to anyone to see me rate this book so highly. After all, I loved The Fifth Season, so there was every chance I’d love its sequel just as much. Especially with it being a book by N K Jemisin; I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers that I haven’t loved. I had high hopes for this novel when I started it, and I wasn’t at all disappointed.

If you thought the story in The Fifth Season was complex, just wait until The Obelisk Gate picks up steam. It’s not hard to keep track of events and new information, but there’s a lot of it, and it comes at the reader as hard and fast as it comes at the characters. There’s a lot to take in, a complex and changing world, characters having their previous way of life turned on its head, and everything they knew turns out to be deeper and more twisted than they could have imagined.

The story continues with Essun, living in a community of orogenes and non-orogenes together, trying to weather the beginnings of the Season that looks like it will utterly destroy everything humanity has accomplished, trying to learn from her dying mentor what she needs to do in order to set things right before he dies. She hasn’t forgotten her goal to hunt down the man who killed her son and kidnapped her daughter, Nassun.

Nassun, on the other hand, is still with that man, who drags her all the way to a place he heard about where orogenes can be cured of their terrible and dangerous affliction. But that’s not exactly the case, as Nassun learns, and as her power grows, she uncovers a great deal about the world, its history, and its potential future.

And that, my friends, is probably the worst description you’ll ever read of this book. it doesn’t do it justice. But to say more would include spoilers. I could talk about how orogeny is revealed to be a kind of magic, or how a group of stone eaters seem to want humanity wiped out and are working to accomplish that goal, or how the moon is coming back and somebody has to orogenically catch it and return it to a stable orbit, and that may save the world or destroy it, or any number of amazing aspects to this story that are worth talking about, but every one of the amazing things that hooked my attention would ruin bits of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, and this book is one that’s truly worth not being spoiled in advance.

Fortunately, there’s more than can be talked about that won’t spoil anything for anyone. For instance, the parallels of how orogenes are treated to how people of colour have been and still are treated in various parts of the world. It’s hard to hear characters call someone a rogga, or a rogga-lover, and not think back to a certain word that begins with ‘N’ that’s used in similar ways. It’s hard to read some of the quotes from in-universe books that refer to orogenes being inferior, inhuman, and only good so long as they’re used like slaves, and not draw some comparisons from our own history. It’s painful, and difficult to be confronted with, because it talks about racism without talking directly about racism. The analogies are there for all to see, but sometimes people are only open to something when it’s couched in other terms. I can’t say for sure that it was Jemisin’s intent to have all of it sink unconsciously into readers’ brains, or whether she just intended to draw analogies and let that be the end of it, but from personal experience, I’ve noticed that people seem more willing to accept something when they’ve accepted that thing in another form.

Morality comes into play, unsurprisingly; specifically, shifting morality. The world is different during a Season. That much is established from the beginning. Animals and plants change in response to catastrophe, or else they don’t survive and they die off. But that has nothing to do with morality. The way humans act does, or so it can be argued. What’s unthinkable in one circumstance might be accepted in times of crisis. Cannibalism is treated as a thing that nobody really wants to do, for instance, but when there are people are starving and you’re trying to last for as long as you can, it become acceptable, just a part of life, to eat your own kind in order to survive. One less person eating from stores of food, and their body nourished you for a time. To kill someone when they become too a big a drain on resources. Brutality becomes an everyday thing, distanced from thoughts of cruelty and disgust, because these things that are unconscionable in one time become necessary in another. It was an interesting thing to explore, placed into the story in little pieces, bits of dialogue here and there, and the way characters treated it was realistic and sad at the same time.

Similar to this was the running thread that sometimes cruel things must be done for a person’s own good. Or at least, the idea of it, rather than the veracity of it. How many of us haven’t argued against someone doing something for their own good when it’s not actually what you want or need? Is it right or wrong to demand a change of someone’s identity that will make it easier for them to get by in the world? Is it better or worse to remove someone’s pain if it also means removing their strength? Save a flawed world, or destroy both the bad and the good within it? Questions with no good answer, a dozen arguments for against each side, and they come up time and again in The Obelisk Gate. I loved reading about how different characters dealt with these ethical dilemmas, the arguments that they made, and what that revealed about them as people.

I also, and possibly especially, loved seeing Nassun’s growth. She goes from somebody who needs rescuing, a somewhat nebulous goal in The Fifth Season, to a powerful person with a growing sense of individuality and purpose as The Obelisk Gate progresses. She manipulates her father in order to save herself, still feels some affection for him while fearing him and his anger. She learns things that orogeny can do, including things she’s already been taught it’s not supposed to do that it actually can. Her relationship with Schaffa is a complicated one on both sides, with mixed honesty and deception, and it made all of their interactions that much more interesting. Honestly, after a while I began reading Essun’s sections of the story with a bit of impatience, because I wanted things to shift back to Nassun’s perspective so that I could see more of her development. It wasn’t that Essun wasn’t interesting, but more that Nassun held more potential in my mind, and I wanted to see how her part in the story all plays out.

As expected, Jemisin’s poetic writing shines in this book, stark and evocative and beautiful. That perfect bled between stream-of-consciousness and complete narration, which I think it something of a signature style by this point. Difficult to pull off, but brilliantly effective and hooking readers when it’s done right; and by damn, does she ever do it right! She tells such wonderfully creative stories in such a unique way, and the two aspects come together and become something breathtaking, transformative and important.

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s not one you can jump into without having read The Fifth Season, or else you will be utterly lost, so if you haven’t read the first book yet, then definitely do so before picking this one up. It’s a powerful story that takes you on an incredible journey of destruction and survival, struggle and hope, and after finishing this only yesterday, I already can’t wait to see how the rest of the story continues in the next book. To say that I enjoyed it would be an understatement. Jemisin is a creative genius, and I eagerly anticipate what she does next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Fifth Season, by N K Jemisin

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Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Thoughts: Since reading the Inheritance trilogy, I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s writing, and I lusted after this book for well over a year. So when it finally made its way into my hands, I had extremely high hopes for it. I spent that time happily sheltered from any spoiler more detailed than the release date, so I went into it blind, knowing only that it was written by an author whose work I love.

I can’t even begin to say how even my legendary expectations were blown out of the water.

The story starts with Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered their young son and kidnapped their daughter, because he found out that Essun and her children were orogenes, those hated and dangerous manipulators of the earth. Essun sets out on a quest to kill her husband and recover her daughter, but a powerful seismic event has just happened, starting an unprecedented Season and changing the fate of humanity. Told alongside Essun’s story are the stories of Syenite, a young orogene on a mission with the most powerful orogene alive, and Damaya, an orogene just starting her training at the Fulcrum. Over time we see how these stories converge, but it’s not in the way many readers might first expect.

What to say about the world of The Fifth Season? The planet, or at least the known inhabited land, is one large continent called the Stillness. Nobody has much inclination to seek potential land elsewhere, because seismic activity is common and devastating, and tsunamis are a very real and not uncommon danger for people living in coastal communities, let alone those at sea. Humanity has survived disaster after disaster, civilizations crumbling and new ones arising, and the Sanze empire has been in power for most of recorded history. It is, on its surface, a fascinating and unique fantasy world.

But scratch below the surface and you see that it’s more complicated than that. It isn’t said outright, but there are strong hints dropped that it’s not a secondary world so much as this world, and that the whole story is post-apocalyptic fantasy. (Highlight to read spoilers) Long ago, humanity managed to destroy the moon, and with it went all we know about its effects on seismic activity. Tidal patterns changed. Earthquakes and volcanoes became more common. The degree to which this happens may be a bit of artistic license, but it all fits so very well that it’s hard to question too much of the hypothetical science while reading The Fifth Season.

There are so many wonderful and subtle things I loved about this book. It’s worth pointing out that treatment of gender and sexuality were two of the things that resonated strongly with me. Transgender people are encountered, and nobody makes a big deal of it. Someone presents as a woman, and whether or not they have a penis, you treat them like a woman. End of story. Alabaster prefers to sleep with men, Innon is happy to sleep with men or women. Things that this society still treats as odd and worthy of stares are treated as just part of people, no more odd than being cisgender or heterosexual. You can almost here the, “Yeah, what of it?” being asked every time it crops up in text, because the subtlety is so blatant that it’s practically challenging the reader to make a big deal of something that shouldn’t be, if they dare.

Of all three stories being told, I think I found Syenite’s and Damaya’s sections the most interesting. It wasn’t that Essun’s chapters were boring or poorly written, but from the perspective of personal taste, I found them less appealing than the others. Syenite’s chapters had quite a bit of action to them, which helped, and I’ve always had a draw to stories of kids encountering unique school-like settings like Damaya did. Essun’s story of vengeance in a world being slowly destroyed was compelling, and it being told in from the second-person viewpoint made many of the emotional scenes hit powerfully hard, and maybe that was part of why I liked the other sections more, too. Some things aren’t exactly enjoyable to read, given their subject matter, even when the skill that crafted the scene is first-rate and deserves to be read and appreciated.

The Fifth Season is Jemisin at her finest, and is a stellar novel not to be missed by fantasy fans. It hits hard, an earthquake to the soul; it wrings you out and puts you back together again. Powerful prose, amazing world- and culture-building, high emotional investment, all put together by a master of the writer’s art. This is a legend in the making!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Awakened Kingdom, by N K Jemisin

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Publication date – December 9, 2014

Summary: As the first new godling born in thousands of years — and the heir presumptive to Sieh the Trickster — Shill’s got big shoes to fill. She’s well on her way when she defies her parents and sneaks off to the mortal realm, which is no place for an impressionable young god. In short order she steals a demon’s grandchild, gets herself embroiled in a secret underground magical dance competition, and offends her oldest and most powerful sibling.

But for Eino, the young Darren man whom Shill has befriended, the god-child’s silly games are serious business. Trapped in an arranged marriage and prohibited from pursuing his dreams, he has had enough. He will choose his own fate, even if he must betray a friend in the process — and Shill might just have to grow up faster than she thinks.

Thoughts: I can’t even begin to say how much I love Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. I’ve read it through twice, and it’s inspired probably dozens of conversations by this point, because the world and the characters are so amazing and I sink into the stories like a hot bath. Not a warm bath. Hot. The kind of hot that’s just a little bit painful on the skin, but when you get used to it, you never want to leave.

So you can only imagine my excitement when I first heard that she was writing a sequel novella. The chance to read a new story set in a world I love so much? There is no downside here!

The story focuses on Shill, a newborn godling trying to find her place in the world, and deciding that the best way to go about it is to interact with mortals and learn about herself through learning about them. In the attempt to find her nature and to learn about mortals, she changes the world in ways unforeseen, and utterly spectacular.

There’s a powerful message in here about walking in the footsteps of others, and trying to live up to what you believe other people want of you. Shill believes she is supposed to be the next Sieh, the trickster and the child, and when she can’t make herself be what Sieh was, she gets frustrated and upset. It takes her a while to learn that she can’t be anybody but herself, that trying to be someone else is fairly useless, and that everyone has a niche to fill, a role to play, even if it’s not the one they expected. This was something that resonated fairly strongly with me, because for all it sounds like the message behind an after-school TV special, it’s a lesson that took me years to learn. I used to think the only way of being worthwhile was to imitate those whom I thought were worthwhile. I ended up being a poor copy of them at best, and it never felt true or right. So this is the sort of thing that even adults need to hear sometimes, not just young children.

The Awakened Kingdom being a novella, it’s a very quick read, but honestly, even had it been the length of a full novel I would call it a quick read simply because I’d be reading it obsessively and in every spare moment. Good books often seem like quick reads because you read them so much that you finish them in a relatively short amount of time. And Shill is a fun character because she’s so new to existence, so we get to see her learn and grow and make the kind of commentary that only comes about with childlike naive logic. Only when that naivite is in the hands of a godling, well, results are extra special. Such as Shill’s little warning not to go into black holes even though they “look like cute little Nahas.” Excellent advice. I shall follow it to the letter!

Of course, the reason for Shill’s advice and even for telling the story the way she does becomes evident at the end, and hearkens back to the way Yeine’s story was told in The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms. It may be a bit disjointed and it is the embodiment of the unreliable narrator, but there’s a point to it, a reason, and it becomes clear over time that it’s more than just a storytelling gimmick.

Like many authors have done in the past, Jemisin creates societies that flip our current stereotype of gender roles around, making women the aggressive leaders and men the ones who stay home and take care of the babies. This is fertile ground for strong female characters to arise, and arise they do! Jemisin also uses this to highlight the inequality in all such systems; a person’s worth is not and should not be determined by what’s between their legs.

But Jemisin’s writing stands head and shoulders above so many others who do this for one simple reason: when I read what Jemisin writes, I can truly believe that women can be strong because they’re women, not in spite of it. I’ve read plenty of books with strong women, but even in novels where gender equality is supposed to be the norm, strong female characters often come across as though they’re trying to prove that women can be equal after all. Jemisin’s women often give the impression of, “Yes, I’m strong. Obviously. What of it?” And I love that!

For fans of the trilogy, this is a must-have, because it’s a wonderful return to a wonderful world. For those who have yet to read the trilogy and are intrigued by this review, take heart, because it’s included in the omnibus edition that’s soon to be released! Even had I not been lucky enough to get a copy of this for review, I was planning on rebuying the books just so I could get to read The Awakened Kingdom, which I think is a sign of a strong and influential series that’s worth reading. Those who enjoyed the Inheritance trilogy will likely get the same kick out of Shill that I did, love the story as much, and, if they’re anything like me, reading it will make them want to read the original novels all over again.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Kingdom of Gods, by N K Jemisin

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Publication date – October 27, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameri’s ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war.

Shahar, last scion of the family, must choose her loyalties. She yearns to trust Sieh, the godling she loves. Yet her duty as Arameri heir is to uphold the family’s interests, even if that means using and destroying everyone she cares for.

As long-suppressed rage and terrible new magics consume the world, the Maelstrom — which even gods fear — is summoned forth. Shahar and Sieh: mortal and god, lovers and enemies. Can they stand together against the chaos that threatens?

Thoughts: I would like to start off by mentioning the utter squee reaction that I had when I realized that the narrator of this book was Sieh. From early in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (review here), he was one of my favourite characters, and so getting to see part of this epic tale told from his perspective was thrilling!

Sieh’s narrative was endlessly interesting. He’s a study in opposites, really, with his eons of experience going hand-in-hand with his childlike nature, and then the inner conflict of finding himself mortal and aging when in his mind he was meant to be the eternal child… It made for a fascinating read, very thought-provoking, and would have been page-turning enough even if it wasn’t for the engaging plot and mystery surrounding all events.

The plot itself it was a little slow in places, ranging from excitement and action to a step back with character introspection and reflection. Though the story still flowed well and was a treat to read, I did find myself wondering on occasion when things were going to pick up again and move the plot along a little more, rather than see Sieh have another argument about the same things he’s been arguing about for the entire book. Definitely provides greater insight into the character, there’s no denying that, but the way the pacing went up and down made for a bit of tedium at times.

As always, Jemisin did a wonderful job of expanding the world that she set down in the first book of the trilogy. More of the universe and history is revealed as we read through each of the books, leading to a wonderfully complete view of the gods (as much as you can ever get a complete view of gods), the world they’re a part of, and the people surrounding them. None of these things lack for development, and this book held some of the most interesting concepts I’ve ever seen played with in fiction involving deities. Sieh’s development (and especially his relationship to Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas), the interesting political play and evolution of the Arameri family, Kahl’s insane plan to essentially change the very fabric of the universe. It’s all deep and wonderful stuff, the kind that leaves you with plenty of debate and discussion with other fans of the series.

(This is one of a few books — series, really — that has resulted in me walking down the street and carrying on active conversations with friends over the personalities and natures of the gods, and debating what they might do in certain situations. Possibly one of the most interesting conversations overheard in McDonald’s…)

If you’re about to read this book for the first time, I urge you to remember just who it is that’s telling the tale. Sieh starts off by telling us that there will be no tricks. Can you really believe a narrator whose very nature involves trickery? The whole story is a trick, a tale that is nothing like what it first appears to be, with more layers and subtext and insight than you’d think it’s possible to cram into a single novel. But Jemisin, with her imaginative voice and incredible sense of style, manages it. This is one series that you will not find yourself disappointed for having read.