The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

One of the consequences of growing older and becoming busier is that I don’t have the same impulse to stay up all night reading books, even ones that I really enjoy. For the most part that is a phenomenon of my past, but every once in awhile there is a book that makes me want to read straight through in one sitting. This is one such book. I restrained myself, parsing out chapters as a reward for getting enough work done on weekdays, but I wanted to start with this introduction in order to cut right to the chase: the The Fifth Season is spectacularly good and the first book in a series that has won back-to-back Hugo awards for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel.

Appropriately for its title, The Fifth Season starts with an end. A deep, fiery, man-made rift opens in the planet’s single continent, the Stillness, spewing ash and starting destructive earthquakes. Like in all fifth seasons, apocalypse-level cataclysms, society crumbles and people die while clinging desperately to the advice preserved in Stone Lore. All the while, obelisks drift through the sky above the stillness.

The Fifth Season rotates between three viewpoints, each following a woman at a different stage of life: Damaya, in her youth, Semnite, as an upwardly mobile professional, and Essun (referred to as “you”) as a middle aged woman chasing her husband through the apocalypse because he killed their son and absconded with their daughter. Each narrative revolves around the issue of orogeny, a hereditary magical ability that allows the wielder to to harness the kinetic energy of the earth in order to quell or incite geological material and activity. This power, which manifests at an early age, is commonly received with superstition and fear, with the wielders killed by angry crowds unless they are swept up by the Imperial Fulcrum, a training program where they can be controlled and protected by the Guardians.

Thus Damaya is swept into this system and exposed to its benefits and horrors, but often finds that her questions about the Fulcrum’s secrets go unanswered. Semnite, by contrast, is a fast-rising “four-ringer” Imperial Orogene and is now authorized to operate in the world on her own, and is dispatched with the prodigy ten-ringer Alabaster to clear a harbor of coral. Her mission is simple on the surface, but the subtext is that she is required to have a child with Alabaster who, in turn, teaches her about orogeny and the true nature of the Fulcrum. Essun, finally, experiences orogeny in the world when her husband kills their child upon finding out this secret.

The three narratives draw together as the book progresses, both serving a larger plot and remaining distinct stories in their own right.

Despite the breadth of the time and space covered by The Fifth Season (the attention to the scale of the continent was refreshing), the cast of characters remained relatively small, which allowed room to explore them in some depth. Jemisin likewise builds depth into the world, both with ruins of civilizations destroyed by fifth seasons past forming the bones of the continents and with an attention to the variety of racial features that set the different people apart.

Society on the Stillness is in the twilight years of an empire that dominated large swathes of the continent through its control of orogenes because this allowed much of its territory to remain stable while technology was developed. Its rule is not what it once was and most outlying comms (communities) are not directly subject to central power the way they once were. But being subject to an empire for so long has left its mark in most communities such that they are organized along similar lines. Each person has a name, the comm they are attached to (particularly important in times of crisis), and their use-cast, such as “leader,” “innovator,” or “strongback.” During a Fifth Season many of these distinctions no longer matter, but they also serve as a mark of normalcy. Center and periphery alike are adhere to Stone Lore, the advice literally carved in stone about how to survive cataclysms that is supposed to be immutable. This convention, however, need not actually be the case.

I’ve enjoyed the other books of Jemisin’s that I have read, but in The Fifth Season she takes the combination of worldbuilding, prose style, and storytelling to a new level. I cannot recommend this book enough and am greatly anticipating its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

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I am continuing with my streak of reading books by women, so, next up I am reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novel The Word for World is Forest.

Writing and Experience

When I find an author whose work I like, I tend to seek out everything I possibly can from that person. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly in genre fiction where I can be turned off by a particular premise, but working through an author’s catalogue is my general m/o. In part this habit is a way to hedge my bets that I will enjoy each new book I pick up now that I have basically stopped re-reading books, but it has also led to an observation: writers improve.

Trite, I know, but true. Some authors may hone their craft such that each book in a series is more precisely paced and formed as though from an assembly line, but in others the craft of writing is more finely-tuned.

My favorite example of this is in Hemingway’s novels. His earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) offer the classic examples of the spare prose style that is associated with him, but by To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and definitely Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway had mellowed the harsher edges of his prose. From a technical standpoint, he had improved. Hemingway’s unfinished novels show similar improvement, even in their unfinished state.

More recently, I’m noticing a similar improvement in N.K. Jemisin’s novels, from her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) to The Fifth Season (2015). The former is excellent, refreshing for many reasons, the latter is a pleasure to read, almost poetic in its presentation.

This observation is not meant as an endorsement or indictment of any particular book. There are plenty of experienced writerly ticks that drive me insane and first books that set an impossibly high bar, but, nevertheless, experience is an excellent teacher. Why mention it, then? Simply because it gives me hope that, given practice, my writing will continue to improve too.

The Kingdom of the Gods – N.K. Jemisin

Note: This book is the third book in a trilogy so while I will avoid spoilers for this particularly book, there will inevitably be allusions to the events of the previous two.

A century has passed since the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, nearly as much since those of The Broken Kingdoms, and the world is changing again. The power of the Arameri, the family that once ruled the entire world, is diminished—its wealth and power being challenged and its members being killed under suspicious circumstances. But there is an even more fundamental happening: Sieh, firstborn of the godlings, god whose portfolio is most perfectly encapsulated by childhood, is losing his powers. More specifically, he is growing up.

No longer able to reside in the realm of the gods, Sieh is forced to live among mortals, relying on their friendship (and, frequently, grudging charity), including from the Arameri heir Shahad, her twin brother Dekarta, and the youngest of the godlings, Ahad. These people have limited patience for Sieh’s growing pains, though, particularly because he has, at one point or another, managed to offend each of them. Nevertheless, as Sieh discovers nearly too late, they and the world are in grave danger because there is a hidden foe of Sieh’s creation (and antithetical to his nature) that is looking to recreate existence.

The Kingdom of the Gods follows the pattern set by the two earlier books to good effect, dropping into an unfamiliar and disorienting situation right along with the protagonist—Sieh, in this instance. The first person narration once again provides novel insight into the world and moves the plot along well, but also contributes to its jumpiness since one of the plot points is Sieh’s erratic aging. The conclusion to the series also picks up where the previous two books leave off in terms of addressing issues of abuses of power inherent in, for instance, rape, but also manipulations within friendship. The result is a book that provides a thoughtful discussion of friendship and moves along well, but comes cross as somewhat less tightly constructed than the two previous installments, both of which operated on tighter deadlines in the narrative.

On the whole I liked The Kingdom of the Gods as it continued particularly to explore the cosmological setting established back in the first book. Jemisin’s take on these was a logical extension of what had already been established such that elements such as how godlings interacted with things antithetical to their nature and how they discovered what their nature actually is were refreshing. At the same time, though, there was a tendency to err towards making things too neat. This works for the story in the sense that it makes things easier to explain, but it nevertheless left me frustrated because it seemed to diminish the world of depth.

I had other complaints, but I don’t want to nitpick too much. Endings are hard and I did not feel cheated the way I sometimes have with how a series ends. Jemisin does well not making the trilogy continuous so much as consecutive, picking three stories from a long period of time and letting the world breathe between each book. Each sequel is recognizably in the same world and dealing in somewhat different ways with the same themes, but not simply picking up where the last left off. The result is that the gods are the characters who are largely carried over from one book to the next, but this does not mean that they remain constant either. In sum, I am looking forward to reading Jemisin’s other work and have a copy of The Fifth Season on my to-read shelves that I will probably open later this year.

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Next up, I am currently reading Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. This is my first exposure to Wolfe’s work and only now in the home-stretch am I actually appreciating the plot—the rest of the book strikes me as literary self-indulgence of ego and lust.

The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Ten years have passed since the events in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the world as entirely changed. Sky, once a radiant white city is now bound to the Wold-Tree, among whose roots the lower city is set. The community has a clear hierarchy, with those of greater wealth and status residing higher in the tree. There is, however, a more fundamental change in the world: Itempas has been deposed, cast into a mortal form, and the children of the three, godlings of many stripes, have been allowed to return the world provided that they remain in the city.

Oree Shoth, a blind street merchant selling trinkets lives in this city, among the shadows of the tree’s massive roots. Most people shy away from Oree because of her peculiar visage, but she has made friends among her fellow artists, among some of the godlings of the city, and with one homeless man she found in the muckbin and took into her home. Oree’s blindness is not total; but the only thing that she can see is magic. This gift will prove both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to light that someone is killing godlings—a development that deeply displeases Nahadoth, who has demanded that the killer be brought to justice with in the next thirty days. Present at the time of the latest murder, Oree and her house-guest find themselves at the center of the conspiracy.

The Broken Kingdoms is a worthy follow-up to Jemisin’s debut novel in just about every way. It deepens the series’ world, both in terms of introducing new races and places and by developing the cosmology. The latter remains a play on traditional cosmological tropes: surprise, the three have children! And these children embody fundamental characteristics such as hunger or mercantilism in their interactions withe world of mortals! But Jemisin fleshes these relationships out, developing what happens when mortals and gods mix (hint: they don’t) and how the traits manifest. For instance, the godling whose nature embodies hunger likes both consuming flesh and consuming the longing lost children have for love. Likewise in terms of story, The Broken Kingdoms retains the basic structure of a young woman without a clear understanding of what is happening interacting with the gods and a deadline come much too soon, trading the upper class for a lower one and the genre of political thriller for deadly mystery.

There are elements of The Broken Kingdoms that will come across as predictable for anyone who has read the first book, but this is not strictly a criticism since Jemisin does a good job at layering developments so that even the obvious feel right. Moreover, the mystery plot largely serves to move the narrative rather than being the be-all, end-all the way it might in a traditional detective novel. Looking at it in this respect, the mystery-on-a-deadline lends the novel with a sense of impending doom and makes sure that it does not lag. Its weakness, however, was also evident in that, for all of Oree’s protestations toward poverty, the immediate danger she is in and her wealthy godling friend had a way of blunting any social commentary established by setting the story in the lower rungs of society. Yes, the issues are there, but they take a back seat to the plot and the way our heroine interacts with gods in this world make them seem more superficial than another sub-genre might have done. This is a minor criticism given the constraints within the rest of the story but is something I noticed despite the thoughtful texturing of the book as a whole.

Some aspects of the writing and the world did not feel as fresh as the inaugural novel, but that is to be expected, and I appreciated the use of a blind character to give a new approach to describing the setting. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how Jemisin finishes the trilogy.

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Next up, I recently finished reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade about the history of Batman and the comic’s role in American culture and am now reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.

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I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.