Jews with Swords: Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

The gentlemen of the road are an odd couple, the thin, pale, Zelikman, a physician with his needle-like sword and the dark, burly Amram, a former soldier with his ax named “Defiler of Your Mother.” Their dissimilarity fuels their performances, spectacular duels over, say, a hat, that incite heavy betting; such moments offer opportunities for the canny and unscrupulous.

Other than destroying Zelikman’s favorite hat, everything was going according to plan until they are found out by Filaq, a Khazar youth. Filaq is not interested in exposing their confidence game, but turns out to be on the lam, hunted by agents of Buljan, the new Khazar Bek who had killed his predecessor, Filaq’s father. Owing partly to their natural heroism and partly to the need to retrieve Zelikman’s horse, Hillel, the gentlemen of the road follow Filaq all the way to Khazaria where they find themselves at the heart of a revolution that they have no claim to.

Gentlemen of the Road is a fun adventure story spun out with Chabon’s linguistic flourish. It holds certain positions when it comes to revolution and equality and gender, but does so with a light touch. In the afterward, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story in a time and place where Jews could wield swords (hence the Khazars, a tribe of nomads who allegedly converted to Judaism), but even this central aspect to the story is not essential to the plot. These are mostly Jews who are not particularly driven by their Judaism.

The sum is a pleasant enough story, but one that is fluffy and insubstantial. It was a good palate cleanser from the emotional power A Tale for the Time Being, but not nearly approaching the level of the other Chabon novel I’ve read, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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Next up, my partner asked me to finish reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books so that she can talk with me about them, so I’m now reading The Year of the Flood.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.

Quiet – Susan Cain

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on my radar for a while, but never rose to the level of my seeking it out. Then it came into my household and now in early 2018 I picked it up as part of my initiative to read more non-fiction.

The premise of Quiet is simple: US culture in business and school idealize and valorize extroverts, but somewhere between one third and one half of all people are introverts. People with introverted personality types are at risk for depression, anxiety, and neutered career prospects, Cain argues, but this is because the gifts that introverts can bring to the table are misapplied or overlooked at best, and smothered at worst.

“Different, not better,” could be the book’s motto. In tracking through studies about performance, she is careful to point out that intelligence is roughly evenly distributed between introverts and extroverts, but that the personality types a) function best in environments with different types of stimulation and b) at different types of tasks. Neither is “better” than the other, and, Cain argues, both function better in situations where there is a symbiosis of the two (she cites, for instance, Jobs and Wozniak and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as particularly effective partnerships). Thus the flaw in the modern corporate environment is a failure to appreciate the needs and skills of employees. In these moments, Cain’s background as a consultant shows through.

Cain works through three bodies of evidence to make her case. She first examines the evolution in American culture exemplified by Dale Carnegie as a way to explain where the extrovert ideal comes from and how it shapes American life. Second, Cain lays out in approachable terms the (relatively) recent scientific findings regarding personality and character types to explain how the traits develop and how they affect performance under various conditions. Finally, she offers a bevy of personal anecdotes and conversations with people she knows to demonstrate living examples of the psychology and of the suggestions for how to thrive as an introvert. The last category, particularly the successful ones, are seemed designed to be uplifting to potential introverts—their equivalent of the Tony Robbins seminar Cain attends and feels deeply uncomfortable at. These were usually the least interesting part of the book, in my opinion.

I am an introvert, usually. (Every once in a while a Myers-Briggs test spits back an “extrovert” result.) As such, much of what Cain wrote struck home and I found myself nodding along as she described the way novel and crowded locations can result in absolute sensory overload. I immediately jumped back to the sensation of being in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and any number of parties where I had to excuse myself. Quiet was interesting for this reason, but not life-changing for me because most of the suggestions it gives are things that I already do in my life. Where it was useful, however, was by forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy in that I am unconsciously falling into habits that reinforce the extrovert ideal under the guise of class-participation. I don’t yet know what I am going to do about this, and most of the suggestions on this front are not particularly well-suited for a college classroom, but at least I came away more conscientious.

Quiet is absolutely a worthwhile read, even if it comes off as a book that could be thrust upon shy people everywhere so as to say “it is okay that you’re shy, there are ways to overcome that.” The book has some virtue in that regard and Cain frequently reiterates that, yes, it is okay–even natural–to be shy. But the more important audience for Quiet is not for introverts everywhere, but for managers, bosses, and teachers everywhere to make them realize that the quiet person who they keep overlooking for promotion or marking down for not speaking up in class can be just as valuable as the person strutting about in the front of the room with his or her bright plumage ready for inspection.

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I also finished reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King last week and intend to write up some thoughts about it, but things have been hectic around here, so we will see. I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I love it so far, but see the above comment about writing blog posts—I just hope that it is not a casualty of the conditions under which I am reading it.

Ilium – Dan Simmons

Earth has changed dramatically since the Lost Age. The few remaining “old style” humans live in communities or estates that are connected by faxnodes and protected from the roaming dinosaurs by the omnipresent, but ultimately mysterious voynix. Surrounding earth are the fabled cities of the Post-Humans, who exist not unlike gods to the old styles who remains. Aside from distractions like parties and fornication (learning to read is a preoccupation of a single person), old styles lose themselves in the spectacle of the “turin-shroud”—a visual device with exactly one show: the Greeks and Trojans slaughtering one another on the plains of Ilium.

At the foot of Mons Olympus on Mars the Trojan War is nearing a climax. Events so far have unfolded basically as described in the Iliad. Achilles has raged at the injustices heaped upon him by Agamemnon and the gods have continued to scheme against each other while using Trojans and Greeks as their playthings. Amidst the carnage and camaraderie flits Thomas Hockenberry, one among many scholics—revivified Homeric scholars who have been equipped with technology that allows them to possess the bodies of Trojans and Greeks as they study the events. The gods wield enormous power, but they are not omniscient; in contrast, the scholics know the future, at least in theory. Then Hockenberry gets entangled in one of the many divine schemes.

Meanwhile, Orphus and Mahnmut, two moravecs (self-replicating, intelligent robots from the region outside the asteroid belt) have joined a mission to Mars, where spiking levels of quantum activity are threatening the stability of the solar system. Lovers of Shakespeare and Proust, neither is prepared to be attacked by what appear to be Greek gods on chariots. The deities destroy their ship, kill the other members of the expedition, and leave them to complete the mission alone.

Ilium uses three plot lines to resolve two loosely-connected narrative threads, one on Earth, one on Mars.

On Mars, Hockenberry is tasked by Aphrodite to kill Athena, but takes the tools she gives to go on the lam, afraid of the consequences of his action. A scholar rather than a fighter, he nonetheless finds himself embroiled in further schemes with both the Trojans and the Greeks as he tries, desperately, to survive. This quest therefore aligns him with the moravecs, as all three of them are doing their best to topple the gods on Olympus.

On Earth, a small group of old-style humans are likewise on a quest, in equal parts to steal knowledge from the gods and to learn what it even means to be human anymore. Although they had begun to rediscover long lost skills such as casting bronze, the humans are aided in their quest by Savi, an ancient Jew who missed “the final fax” and exceeded her allotted century many times over, and by a primitive warrior calling himself Odysseus and looking like the character of the same name in the Turin drama. The old-styles seek to enter a city of the Post Humans that orbits earth, but are unprepared for either the demons or the truths that they will find there.

Much like Simmons’ other novels, particularly Hyperion, Ilium is an incomplete story—this time, at least, he is a working from a template. The book answers, or begins to answer, many of the key questions is raises, exploring questions about the intersection of the past and the future, relationship to the divine, and humans and technology, but never reaches a final conclusion. It works well here, offering a deeply immersive setting where unknowable questions are part of the experience.

As for the Trojan War, I largely like the approach taken. Simmons literally embodies Hockenberry and the other scholics around the critical scenes, and even makes at several points the meta-observation that this would be a dream come true for many Classics scholars. After all, who would not want to have sex with Helen? The person whose body is occupied disappears, so the main characters from the Iliad largely appear in their own skin and many men are killed after becoming disoriented when the scholic leaves. In this way and others Simmons weaves together the incongruities and accidents of the Iliad, the prestige of some of the classic translations, and a human perspective. Some of the leaps he makes such that, for instance, cafe scenes in Troy may as well be a cafe scene set in 1920s Paris, struck me as a little bit hokey, but taking this section of the larger picture and fitting it into a story of evolution, technology, and civilization that emphasizes the way in which all of the above are dependent on constructed mythologies served as a nice counterpoint to the other narratives.

I have a long history with Ilium in that I picked it up probably in 2005, not long after it was originally published. It has remained in my collection every since, surviving several purges despite just one spectacularly failed attempt at reading it. I am glad that I decided to keep it around.

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I have one more in the overly-delayed backlog of posts on things I read, for Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, with my post being an unholy mess of a draft. My first book of the new year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata

Set in Japan 1938, The Master of Go is a dramatic recounting of a title match between an unnamed Master who has never lost a ranked game and an up-and-coming challenger, Otaké. The game is timed, but with an unusually long allotment and the final move of each session being sealed before the judges, the other player being left in the dark until the start of the next session when the stone is placed on the board and play resumes. This cycle lasts for months, with the master being in poor health and the challenger having family responsibilities. Behind the semi-rustic setting of the matches, the casual gambling on games of chess and other competitions, and the solemn rituals that govern play, however, is the underlying tension created by tradition colliding with the modern world.

This underlying tension being played out along two avenues, both in the game itself and in the match as a calm center in the midst of a larger world–both stated (newspapers such as the one the narrator works for sponsoring Go tournaments), and only alluded to (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) were, to me, the strongest elements of The Master of Go. The personal tension between two stubborn Go players provided the immediate drama, but it could have been left with just two marginally likeable characters. Framing the match in the larger context gave depth to the description of the game as a battlefield and pathos to the suffering of the Master.

Ultimately, however, my appreciation of The Master of Go was limited by my inability to grasp the nuance of the game itself, which features prominently in the narrative. The book was originally written in Japanese and, based on the way in which Kawabata talks about Go in the novel, I suspect that he assumed his readers would have at least a basic understanding of the game. Given this limitation, I found myself more interested in the historical match and the players on which The Master of Go. For instance, although Kawabata presents the Master as a traditionalist who opposed change, Hon’inbo Shusai (Hoju Tamura) had a scandalous reputation. While at the game board, he abused the adjournment privileges by calling the game at a time that allowed him to consider his next move or, sometimes, abandoning games before completing them…particularly when there was a chance he might lose. Away from the board, he had many rivals, one of whom alleged that he sold his title of Hon’inbo for cash. A rather different picture than the one painted by Kawabata, who used this famous match as an opportunity to ask another set of questions.

I enjoyed moments of The Master of Go, and Kawabata’s prose worked for me (much like a lot of the other Japanese literature I have read, actually).In the end, though, I was unable to appreciate it as much as I would have like. I suspect that there is a Nobel-worthy story in there, provided only that the readership has the background necessary to appreciate it.

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I have been slow in my reading for the past few months just because life has been busy and I have been even slower about writing about what I have managed to read. I am still working through my thoughts of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and just finished reading Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am still planning to do write ups of these books, but I also might change the format of these posts or abandon them altogether in favor of some other type of blogging. The problem with doing this, of course, is that requires time and energy that I don’t have to spare at the moment, so we will see. This afternoon I started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words.

The White Lioness – Henning Mankell

My father used to say about detective fiction that one sign that a series had gone off the rails was when the plot went international. The theory as I understood it is that mystery novels are both about solving the crimes and about evoking a sense of time and place. This holds true whether you are looking at classic fiction like Dashiel Hammet or recent books by authors like Archer Mayor. Even if the place changes, the story is strongest when it stays relatively local. Henning Mankel’s Wallander series violates this principle at every turn.

April 1992, Wallander catches a case when a local real estate agent Louise Åkerblom goes missing. Confusion grows when the police discover the finger of a black man. And then the house explodes. It turns out that Åkerblom was murdered because she stumbled upon a house where a former KGB (Konovalenko)is training an African assassin. Wallander must now learn the identity of both the assassin and the handler. Things become complicated, however, because of a falling out between the two, and each thinking to use Wallander as a conduit to the other. This game turns more deadly when the Konovalenko decides to use Wallander’s daughter as a lever. Now there are two clocks against which he is racing.

The White Lioness is not much of a mystery. In the strictest sense it is one for Wallander, but in terms of genre it reads like a spy-thriller, bouncing between the plotters and the people trying to catch them. The tension is not whodunit or why, but in the cat-and-mouse game itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the book reads like The Day of the Jackal awkwardly grafted onto the Wallander setting.

The White Lioness is the second Wallander book I have read after The Dogs of Riga. Both books are firmly rooted in the events that followed the end of the Cold War, this time focusing on the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It is revealed early on that Sweden is a convenient training ground because of lax border security and proximity to Russia, and the plot one concocted by a radical Boere element in South Africa to subvert the government that is ending apartheid. Despite most of the story being set in Sweden, the Swedish element primarily serves as the way into the story, while the criminals in particular are of non-Swedish origin. My complaints about The Dogs of Riga, including the sense that Wallander is being yanked through events and over-reliance of happenstance are magnified in The White Lioness and I am no closer to developing a sense of Ystad than I was before. I had taken another book in the series from the library, but after this somewhat lackluster experience I probably not going to read it any time soon.

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Recently I finished Yasher Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk, but don’t have enough to say for a full post. Memed, My Hawk is a modern-day folktale set in rural Turkey in the 1920s. Memed is a young man from a poor family who wants more for himself—including to marry Hatche, who is betrothed to the nephew of the town headman. This intensifies Memed’s longstanding conflict with the headman, Abdi Agha, and Memed is forced to turn bandit. The question is whether the life of an outlaw will destroy Memed’s inherent goodness or whether he can become a hero of the people. Memed, My Hawk invokes a time and a place in Turkey, but I found it wanting in terms of characters. Memed is the closest to having depth, but mostly serves as a modern Robin Hood, with Hatche his Maid Marian and Abdi Agha his Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone else in the story is an unchanging archetype. There were individual moments that lived up to the book’s billing, but I was by and large more frustrated than enthralled.

I am now reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, the latest installment in his The Stormlight Archive of doorstoppers.

The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is the third book in the trilogy, so my discussion will include references to the previous two books, as well as commentary on the series as a whole. There may be spoilers.

The end is nearing, perhaps a permanent end. The moon is approaching, and it is up to Nassun and Essun to decide how the Plutonic Engine is going to be used, returning to Father Earth his long lost child—or ending the aeons-long war with a bang. Essun controls the key to the engine, the Onyx obelisk, but the system has an override at an island city called Corepoint in the middle of an ocean on the far side of the world. There the showdown between mother and daughter will take place.

The main narrative unfolds through Essun and Nassun’s twin story lines. First Essun. After her exertions in The Obelisk Gate, Essun fell into a coma and awakens to discover her world changed. Not only is Castrima on the move in a race to inhabit the now-depopulated city Rennanis, but now using orogeny causes her limbs to turn to stone—a process already underway. Essun simultaneously has to further her knowledge about how to use the engine and come to grips with her newly-imposed limitations. Almost despite herself, though, Essun has her friends, including her Stone Eater Hoa, the inventor Tonkee, and lorist, cum-conscript general, cum strongback laborer Danel. They will help Essun however they can.

As befits her childhood, Nassun’s story is more straight-forward. She is resolute in her determination to destroy the moon, carrying out the wish of Steel, “her” Stone Eater. Despite the dangers of a trip through the earth on a long-forgotten transportation system, Schaffa refuses to leave her side. This trip, which will take him near to Warrant (the Seasonal home of Guardians), and destroy him utterly.

Like its predecessor, The Stone Sky introduces a new plot thread that serves as the keystone in the overarching story being told by Hoa. Thousands of years in the past there were no stone eaters, no orogenes, and no seasons. In Syl Anagist life was sacred and the millions of people built the Plutonic Engine to harness the power of “Geoarcanity” by harnessing the power of life into an endlessly efficient system. This will herald in a perfect society that will reduce the number of people who need to be exploited to an absolute minimum. Of course any system requires some sacrifice. Each element of the Plutonic Engine (the obelisks) have to be infused with the life energies of the apostate Niess, a defeated people who were capable of manipulating these energies, and initiated by genetically modified, supposedly sterile people called Tuners capable of using both this magic and orogeny.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, the people of Syl Anagist dug too deep and pushed too far. The consequences were dire, starting a war with Father Earth that threatens to destroy humanity.

Despite the central importance of the mother-daughter relationship over the course of The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is at her best when tackling questions of exploitation. Some of these, such as Schaffa’s relationship with his charges, function as surrogate parent-child interactions, but more often they operate on system levels, such as the suspension of powerfully-orogenic children in stations to reduce seismic activity. Here, in addition to explaining the origins of the conflict, the entirety of the new plot arc asks the question whether it is possible to build a society without exploitation. The answer, obviously, is no.

The Stone Sky is a little bit slow in pulling the divergent threads together and at times substitutes answering questions about the world in place of plot development on the main plot. This is a function its structure, i.e. that it is Hoa explaining information to Essun’s final form, and the setup from the earlier books in the series that started with the characters apart. Thus in addition to the origins of the conflict, we learn about dead-civ ruins, the secrets of Guardians, and origins of Stone Eaters in this book. The Stone Sky is not merely an info-dump, all the same. First, the answers are all to questions raised earlier in the series and, second, the answers come from stories. All the same, the pacing of The Stone Sky is notable because it is fundamentally a race against time with the total apocalypse one of the potential outcomes.

For those people who delay reading a series until they know whether the author sticks the landing: Jemisin does. I would not be surprised if it does not complete the three-peat of Hugo awards, but it is nevertheless a deeply satisfying conclusion to a brilliant series.

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Next up, I broke my streak of books written by women when I started reading Yasher Kemal’s modern folktale Memed, My Hawk.

The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin

Note: As the second book of a trilogy, this post will include some mention of the first book, The Fifth Season, including spoilers in a general sense.

The Season initiated by “The Rifting” when the earth split apart and consumed Yumenes and the imperial Fulcrum is well and truly underway. Everything changes in a Season and the mandate now is simple: survive.

Like it’s predecessor, The Obelisk Gate unfolds between multiple story lines. In one, it picks up with the story of Essun in the comm of Castrima, an underground relic of a “deadciv” with mechanical systems that come alive in the presence of Orogenes. Here there is a question of survival. First there is the social experiment of a comm that includes both the outcast orogenes and “Stills” (people without orogeny) that is mostly held together by the headman Ykka, herself an orogene, but balanced precariously with the presence of Stone Eaters who have their own agendas. Alabaster, turning into stone after inciting a cataclysm, is also in Castrima, both reminding Essun of her previous life and demanding that she learn—in order that she finish what he started. But there is another threat to Castrima: an army from the city of Rennanis is approaching, equipped with guardians and guided by a Stone Eater of its own. Despite Castrima’s subterranean nature, this army nevertheless seems to be honing in.

The second storyline follows Jija and Nassun, Essun’s estranged husband and daughter. Jija wants his little girl back, to have her “cured” of orogeny, so he take her south to a place called “Found Moon,” run by three renegade Guardians, including Schaffa, the one who had collected Essun when she was still known as Damaya. Much to Jija’s chagrin, the training she receives only heightens her powers beyond rather than curing it. In time, Nassun (who believes her mother didn’t love her) comes to realize that her father is not capable of loving her unconditionally. His condition is her orogeny—in other words, who she is. Nassun turns instead to Schaffa who loves her and, unbeknownst to Nassun, her mother.

Unlike in The Fifth Season, these two storylines remain distinct in The Obelisk Gate, setting the stage for a potential intersection again in the trilogy’s final volume.

The Obelisk Gate reveals the first big development in the trilogy when it comes to the obelisks, large stone satellites that float in the sky above the world as relics of a long-lost civilization. These…things…pulse with energy that can be tapped into by particularly skilled Orogenes. This idea was introduced in The Fifth Season, but Alabaster reveals to Essun what he learned about their origins in the course their lessons. The obelisks were part of a network of living magic that somehow set the moon from its orbit. Alabaster wants Essun to transcend her Fulcrum training and grasp living magic so that she can access the Obelisk Gate and catch the moon.

Despite suffering a bit from middle trilogy syndrome where it neither introduces something new and exciting nor concludes something major, The Obelisk Gate is a fantastic novel and a worthy Hugo Award winner. Jemisin walks a fine line. She both manages to build upon the impressive scale of the world and is clearly working from the same plot and template in terms of the narrator (her Stone Eater, Hoa), while also jettisoning two thirds of the point of view characters such that the book feels different. I suspect that the conclusion to the series is going to play an outsized role in my final impression of this book because the series-long arc investigating the relationship between mother and daughter begins to come to the fore by the latter parts of The Obelisk Gate.

Since I bought the second and third book in this trilogy at the same time, I put The Obelisk Gate down and picked up The Stone Sky….and have almost finished reading it. Largely for this reason I am holding back on discussion of some of the information that is carefully doled out and will probably write a spoiler-ific post once I have finished the series. For now, I will say the same thing I said about the first book: I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Ship of Magic – Robin Hobb

A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.

Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?

And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.

Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.

No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.

There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.

I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.

While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.

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I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.