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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin


A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary’s mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Exploring questions of psychology, society, and human emotion in an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of science fiction.
Some books age well, relatively timeless in their concerns, approach, and writing. Some age poorly, speaking only to a very specific time and place. Most books age somewhere in between, aspects dating badly but others still having a resonance. The Left Hand of Darkness is often considered to be one of the first kind; but on this reread, I wanted to see if that really was the case.

The fact is plainly that it is not. In the introduction, Le Guin explicitly describes The Left Hand of Darkness not as a prediction of where humanity will in future go, but as a reflection of gender and society at the time it was written; given that it was written in 1969, and both our understanding of gender and of society have changed a lot in the intervening four and a half decades, that it has dated isn’t a surprise. But some of the ways in which it has dated are significant, given that (unlike, say, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) it is still very widely praised for its portrayal of a nonbinary approach to genders. Part of the problem is that the narrator of most of the book is trapped in a very 1960s approach to gender; a very binarist model, with masculine/male superior and feminine/female inferior; public/domestic, forceful/submissive, strong/weak, violent/peaceful, straightforward/dissembling are all read through a male/female binary that reads as singularly outdated to the modern reader. Even those parts of the book narrated by a Gethen native, an “hermaphroditic neuter” as Le Guin describes them, is affected by these things.

A further problem is that these “hermaphroditic neuters” (who enter kemmer, or heat, about four days in twenty-six and only have a dominant binary sex then) are referred to, consistently, as “he”, “him”, “man”, etc; they are gendered, both by Genly Ai and by Estraven, our native narrator, who surely ought to have to hand a gender-neutral pronoun, whether neo or otherwise. As it is, the times they enter kemmer as female become slightly strange, as if there is far more change; this is inconsistent with the actual words on the page, but the implication of the defaulting all characters to male by all the narratorial voices.

The biggest problem from a queer point of view, though, is that queerness is completely erased from The Left Hand of Darkness. Homosexuality is implied as a strange minority act in the Ekumen, and nonexistent on Gethen, the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, as if given the choice everyone would have heterosexual pairings; sex arises from oppositional sex to the person one is pairing with in kemmer, hence all sexual pairings are heterosexual, even though people are clearly referred to as having preferred sexual characteristics in kemmer. Furthermore, Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary; the only breach of that binary is on Gethen, meaning trans people, nonbinary people, third gender people, agender people, intersex people, etc? None of these people exist in the world of the Ekumen; Le Guin addresses the questions of sex and gender as utterly inseparable except by a subspecies of humanity, and The Left Hand of Darkness makes, of anyone outside the simple binary, an Othered alien. We are not, in the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, people; we are Other, fundamentally alien, fundamentally estranged from humanity, and indeed fundamentally lesser because of it. This is, from that point of view, an incredibly uncomfortable book to read.

As far as a broader review goes, the book has suffered less from the ravages of time. The Left Hand of Darkness includes a look at a something-like-Soviet Communist state and a semi-feudal, semi-anarchist collective state, noting the shortcoming and drawbacks of each; it features a fantastic amount of both politicking and what might be referred to as fantasy-mountaineering, brilliantly balanced with a consistency of characterisation that really works well; and a philosophical strain, drawing on various non-Western philosophies, that requires real engagement with. Indeed, it’s the balance of these elements that works best, but is fundamentally a minority of the book; the mountaineering section is fantastically evocative and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic, but still essentially concerned with the questions of gender noted above, which the book is ill-prepared to deal with. The best writing in the book is environmental, evoking the cold, stark beauty of an ice sheet or the strange mixture of slush and ash around a frozen volcano; Le Guin excels at these descriptions, undoubtedly.

The Left Hand of Darkness, then, is a book that challenged views of gender in 1970, undoubtedly, although even then not so radically as one might imagine; in 2016, it is hopelessly dated, and even, for those of us for whom the binary is a poor, uncomfortable, damaging fit, actively destructive.

This review is dedicated to Corey Alexander, who was asking for more reviews of The Left Hand of Darkness by trans and enby reviewers!

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Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter


The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment.

Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

DCI Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.
Regeneration is the final novel in Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy, preceded by Gemsign & Binary; it moves the Gems to the point where they are building infrastructure that is vitally important to the future of norm and gem society, where norm political parties are trying to integrate – or at any rate co-opt – gems and their movements, and where gems are deciding what to do with their political and economic voice. In short, the liberation struggle is legally won; the question is where one goes from winning…?

Regeneration isn’t particularly interested in answering the question, so much as in thinking about different possible answers; different characters have different ideas of how to deal with the changing society they live in and the changing status of gems in society, and none of these are clearly the right or wrong answer, although Saulter largely comes down from the start in favour of integration into existing sociopolitical structures. The questions the novel asks are intelligent ones, about marginalised communities and how they can deal with the society that marginalises them; but they’re also threaded through with questions about how one deals with continuing bigotry even when it’s not the societal norm so strongly, and with some discussion of how one deals with internet trolls. Regeneration doesn’t shy away from its questions, even when it can’t necessarily answer them – perhaps especially then.

The strongest part of Regeneration, though, is driven home forcefully by its last section, and is nearly impossible to talk about; Saulter’s extension of humanity to all her characters, her empathy for all of them and willingness to see the possibility of redemption – at least a limited redemption – for anyone has been a strong theme through the ®Evolution series, and Regeneration really capitalises on that, in ways we see coming throughout the novel but that are, when actually executed, pulled off so much more beautifully and brilliantly than the reader could possibly expect. The writing at the end of the book feels like it’s levelled up from even the rest of the book, in terms of humanity, empathy and skill; it couldn’t have been showcased throughout the novel for various reasons but the extent to which it’s put to excellent use in the close is truly amazing.

So far, we’ve not actually talked about the plot. That’s in part because it’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in part because it isn’t the best part of the book; indeed, in some respects, it’s actually quite weak. Regeneration repeated relies on characters not putting two and two together, failing to share information, or, most egregiously, outright being stupid; there are some key elements that would not make sense, that are integral to the tragedy of the ending, if the characters involved didn’t have a huge momentary lapse of common sense suddenly that they simply ignore for the sake of plot. A conspiracy thriller, which this very much is, only works if the conspiracy isn’t obvious; and while the reader knows almost exactly what the conspiracy will do at any given time (from information available to the characters), the characters of the novel, who over the series we’ve grown to like and respect, appear oblivious, in a truly frustrating way.

Regeneration, then, is a novel to be read for its excellent characters and its truly stunning close, rather than for the political-thriller plot that the rest of the series achieved so seemingly effortlessly; Saulter has given us an excellent end for her ®Evolution trilogy, which I highly commend to you, especially with the capstone this gives it.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard


Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
This isn’t going to be what passes as a normal review on this blog. It’s impossible for me to be objective about this book. I first read House of Shattered Wings when it was three chapters and a proposal Aliette was planning on sending her agent, and then again when it was a draft for her agent to send out to publishers; I’ve been really looking forward to seeing how it has changed since then, so when Gollancz offered me an ARC, I jumped on the offer.

House of Shattered Wings is so good, y’all. So very incredibly good. This book takes in class systems, the immigrant experience, colonialism, theological discussion, friendship, personal obligation and debt, the way we are entrenched in and become ensnared by the societies we live in no matter how toxic they are, the limits of magic, the problems of power, and so much more, in the setting of a shattered 19th century Paris, crushed by magical war between fallen angels. And it’s more exciting than that makes it sound; this isn’t a thesis or a piece of fiction shaped around characters spouting off de Bodard’s political manifesto, it’s just that de Bodard has, as usual, the ambition to not back down from interrogating a(nother) Big Idea in the same novel, because it fits.

After all, in a novel populated by fallen angels but one of whose protagonists is an exiled Annamite (that is, Vietnamese) Immortal conscripted into a French war, in a novel where one of the protagonists is a drug-abusing mortal preserving magic for her House, in a novel one of whose protagonists is a Fallen trying to find her place in the world having already been told what her place in the House is, big, complex, crunchy ideas of race, identity, belonging, culture, power and society are inevitably going to come up; and in a world with much smaller political bodies, the cut-throat ruthlessness of those bodies and their leaders is going to be much closer to the surface. The House of Shattered Wings has an awful lot going on, from introducing us to this shattered Paris with its houses, magic, gangs, and more, through the complex and increasingly dark plot; but all really rests on the strength of the protagonists de Bodard gives her audience, and in this novel, that strength is immense.

We have two main protagonists and a third viewpoint character, each of whom has a different voice (my ARC had a flaw, in that sections weren’t clearly demarcated. The different voices of the protagonists actually meant they didn’t need to be); each of whom has different experiences and driving forces behind them; each of whom is wonderfully distinct. Two of them are women – Selene isn’t a protagonist but, as head of House Silverspires and heir of Morningstar, she’s a key figure to the book, and the tensions between the ruthlessness of a head of House and the loving woman who needs her ex-addict partner Emmanuelle are at times terrible to behold. Madeleine, meanwhile, is the alchemist of House Silverspires having formerly been a member of House Hawthorn, driven from there under terrible circumstances and seeking refuge in angel essense; de Bodard’s portrayal of both the trauma and the addiction are fantastic and darkly honest, including the self-justification for things Madeleine knows she shouldn’t do and the portrayal of a self-destructive character. Philippe has a different kind of past; an idealised, idyllic image of an Annam that no longer exists, which he was torn from by Fallen to fight in their wars. The hatred of the Houses that comes from that experience is a huge force in his character, but so is an idea of debt and honour; it’s a fantastic balance and watching de Bodard portray his internal struggles between them is amazing. The final key figure, who has no viewpoint, is at the same time most and least interesting; newly Fallen at the start of House of Shattered Wings, mutilated by Philippe for the magic that suffuses her body, Isabelle is the catalyst for an awful lot of the action, and the strange mix of naivete and cynicism that is commented on by other characters is fascinating, especially as the balance between them changes across the book.

House of Shattered Wings is a novel all about impossible choices, and the consequences of those choices; it’s about history not being dead, it’s about home as a memory as much as a physical location, it’s about ideals and their embodiments and how there is always a gap between those things, it’s about power. De Bodard manages to get all of those things into the plot, without having many subplots splitting off; there are smaller moments, but essentially, the whole narrative force of the book, every characters’ different trajectories and personal journeys and plots, are all impelling the book to its dark, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching conclusion. That’s part of what makes House of Shattered Wings so effective: everything comes together for a finale that involves everyone having to make awful decisions, impossible decisions – and tragedy striking despite goodness, bad things happening despite the reader crying out for them not to, and those consequences not always (not often, not EVER) falling on those who most deserve them. It’s a plot that ought to be really hard to carry off; it doesn’t start until part way through the book but is already being built towards from page one, whose resolution and revelation come in drips before the explosive, soul-hurting climax which only comes after the plot has effectively been resolved.

As a first draft, The House of Shattered Wings did all of these things, but a couple of them – especially that impossible, awful, brilliant, perfect ending – messily. As a final product, with the help of Gillian Redfearn and Jessica Wade (of Gollancz and Roc respectively)? Aliette de Bodard has written an absolute masterpiece whose sequel cannot come soon enough.

House of Shattered Wings comes out from Gollancz in the UK & Roc in the US on August 20th.

DoI: …that whole first paragraph, okay?

Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall


You can’t cry in space, but I was giving it a good go.

After all, I’d just been THROWN OUT OF AN AIRLOCK by a horde of ALIENS and had about three minutes left to live.

So you can’t blame me for trying.

But as it turned out, that was just the start of my adventures.

Because very soon it became clear that if I was ever going to get back home, not only would I have to NOT DIE, but me, my friends and our floating robot goldfish would have to SAVE THE WORLD. No, scrap that. THREE WORLDS. All at the same time.

Easy, right?
Reviewing it eighteen-odd months ago, I had some serious issues with Mars Evacuees; but because Sophia McDougall is a lovely person, I decided to give Space Hostages, the sequel, a try regardless… and I’m glad I did!

Space Hostages picks up a little time after Mars Evacuees left off, including enough time having passed for Alice Dare to have published her memoirs of what happened to her last time out – titled, of course, Mars Evacuees; the conceit of both novels being that they have been written by Alice Dare as accurate records of what happened to her and her friends. Part of what that has led to is a development of Alice’s voice, alongside the rest of the cast; it’s a definite improvement from the first book, as McDougall appears to have gotten a better grasp on that voice, and on the characters she’s working with. Part of that, of course, is that they’re all tempered by their experiences; part of it is also that we have the full addition of Thsaaa to the cast, a Morror who we now know, rather than having to find out about, and who creates a different dynamic in the group.

There’s also a better grasp of the interpersonal dynamics of the core cast, in part because McDougall isn’t developing them from scratch, and in part because Space Hostages has some areas of interpersonal conflict that Mars Evacuees didn’t; it gets to examine longer-running tensions, such as between Josephine and Alice, and how those might be handled (McDougall doesn’t tie the tensions that she makes clear are there early, instead allowing them to slowly be healed and revealed across the course of the whole nove), as well as breaking the team apart into different configurations that allow for different pressures – such as splitting up Noel and Carl, which allows Noel to come into his own as an independent character rather than in the shadow of his brother. Unfortunately, the chapters from Noel’s (and Thsaaa’s) point of view are the weakest chapters of Space Hostages; Noel’s voice is weaker than Alice’s, and having the chapters being dialogues between Thsaaa and Noel is something of a problem because they don’t quite flow, especially the first one; there’s something slightly odd about having passages which are apparently recorded in the midst of the events they portray interspersed with retrospective chapters, especially when the former feel retrospective.

Space Hostages is, in some ways, a much more grown up book, full of greys rather than black and whites, with discussion of colonialism (outright statements of its place in British history, in fact), medical ethics, and the complexity of people, among other things; there’s mention, which one assumes children won’t catch (for that matter, how many adults have read Simone de Beauvoir?), of feminist theory. It’s a wonderfully complex novel that McDougall uses to ask all kinds of questions and raise all kinds of issues around real-world situations, without of course giving answers to those questions; the plot revolves around an alien empire that is emphatically evil, but doesn’t place humanity in the role of unmitigated good – and the aliens aren’t evil because alien, but because empire, which McDougall has (rightly) no interest in redeeming.

Many series become stronger as they go on; it’s clear McDougall’s Space Hostages falls into this category, although the ending implies there may not be another novel, and that would be a loss. Alice Dare has a fantastic voice, and one I’ll miss if this is the last time I’m too meet her.

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney


In the 1980s, poet and activist Roz Kaveney wrote a novel, ‘Tiny Pieces of Skull’, about trans street life and bar life in London and Chicago in the late 1970s. Much admired in manuscript by writers from Kathy Acker to Neil Gaiman, it has never seen print until now…Funny and terrifying by turns, and full of glimpses of other lives, it is the story of how beautiful Natasha persuades clever Annabelle to run away from her life and have adventures, more adventures than either of them quite meant her to have…
Roz Kaveney is someone I have known for a little while now, and consider a friend; she also showed me a draft of the manuscript for this novel some time before publication. So when Tiny Pieces of Skull finally came out back in late April of this year, I knew I had to read it; and after wrangling with various attempts to lay hands on a copy, I finally got one by mid-May… just when my reviewing dried up. So, rather belatedly, I’m now reviewing the book, having read it nigh on two months ago; sorry for the delay, Roz! (Consider this a late birthday present?)

Tiny Pieces of Skull is itself a tiny book – only 180 pages long – produced by a tiny press – Team Angelica. This feels wrong for someone with a personality, and a reputation, as massive as Roz Kaveney’s; activist, poet, editor, author and critical writer, she has turned her hand to many things in the queer and the science fiction communities, and made friends along the way with luminaries such as Neil Gaiman. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that a novel based on her life-experiences in the 1970s feels larger than life, especially since for the UK at that time the United States of America, where Kaveney was, was larger than life (see Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens for another example of that larger-than-life attitude to the USA). It feels much more fantastical than is the case, purely because of the absurdity of the experiences it contains; and yet it also has an honesty about racism, sexism and transphobia – and how those, and movements fighting some of those – intersect (the portrayal of TERFs is, of course, deservedly unflattering at its kindest).

This is also the kind of book that would make a great piece of evidence for a prosecutor, if statutes of limitation didn’t exist. Tiny Pieces of Skull is very honest about survival as a trans woman in the 1970s: drugs, sex work, and a certain amount of at least proximity to serious crime all feature in the story, and Kaveney treats them in a matter-of-fact manner, as simply things that formed part of her (or rather, her character Annabelle’s) life; it’s a riotous, chaotic, confused life that involves gullible johns, corrupt moralising cops, drug dealers with commitment issues and controlling arseholes as well as a wide range of drag queens and trans women all trying to just get by as best they can in a society that often looks down on and despises them.

If there’s one problem with the book, it’s actually given away by the blurb; this is a novel full of people who are defined by a single character trait. Natasha is beautiful, Annabelle is clever, et cetera; Tiny Pieces of Skull has an awful tendency to reduce everyone else to being bit-players in Annabelle’s life, of significance only because of their significance to her… and worse, always stupider than her, needing her to help them or easily tricked and manipulated by her. While this is inevitable to some extent – no autobiography or memoir casts its protagonist in a villainous role – it grates a tad and starts to feel a little light and glib, as if Kaveney has given up on the realities of her life in favour of a version that feels less like reality and more like reality TV or soap opera, where schemes interact with schemes at every turn and witticisms are the only form of communication. This is especially egregious in the dialogue, which just doesn’t have a ring of verisimillitude to it; if this is fictionalised, then it needs to have the plausibility realism doesn’t need, and which this novel at times definitely lacks.

As an artefact of the 1970s trans scene in America, as a memoir of Kaveney’s life, and indeed as a soap opera of a novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull is a rather marvellous little book; just, perhaps, not one for this particular reader.

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

Moon & The Sun

In seventeenth-century France, Louis XIV rules with flamboyant ambition. From the Hall of Mirrors to the vermin-infested attics of the Chateauat Versailles, courtiers compete to please the king, sacrificing fortune, principles and sacred bonds.

Here, Marie-Josephe de la Croix looks forward to assisting her brother, Yves, in the scientific study of the rare sea monster he has captured. But when Marie-Josephe makes a discovery about the sea creature that threatens all her brother, the courtiers and the King understand, it is left to her to defy the institutions that power her world.

But in the decadent court of King Louis, where morality is skewed and corruption reigns – will anyone listen to a single voice? Somehow, she must find the courage to follow her heart and her convictions – even at the cost of changing her life forever.
Historical fiction is an odd genre, and historical fantasy in many ways an odder one; either it has to posit a wholly alternative history with its strange additions like Judith Tarr, or it has to – like Tim Powers – find the cracks in history to put its truths into, to fit the story into the less well-recorded parts of history. The Moon and the Sun does a strange combination of both.

McIntyre’s novel is set in an unusual timeperiod for a historical novel; the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The revolutionary period following his reign, and the mediaeval period of which his reign was in many ways the post-climax comedown, are more common choices; but The Moon and the Sun takes place in a brief period between the two, in the course of a short time at Versailles. Hence, we are treated to all the expected elements of Versailles; the courtly intrigues, the fantastic grandeur and artistic showmanship on display in the Palace and its surrounds and in the everyday garb of the courtiers, and the near-worship of Louis XIV (and the very mediaeval struggles between Prince and Pope).

Interestingly, McIntyre chooses to show us this through the eyes of a woman of colour, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished French noble recalled from the colonies; the triple-outsider status to the court of our protagonist (as female, non-white and poor) means that Marie-Josèphe de la Croix gives us a view of the court much closer to our own. On the other hand that view at times veers strangely close to a modern view; Marie-Josèphe seems strangely immune to the worship of the Sun-King of the rest of the court, although she respects him, and her attitude to many of the traditions and to the Palace itself feel less authentic than modern, as does her society’s attitude to slavery (slavery was abolished in the French colony of Haiti in 1793, and in French territory more broadly in 1794, although it was restored less than a decade later). The Moon and the Sun doesn’t shy away from the racial attitudes of the French court, including the idea of paleness as more beautiful and the fetishisation of the “exotic”; which allows it to discuss the idea of what makes humanity, and how we recognise humanity in other beings, without discussing racism through nonhumans (because racism is being discussed through straight-up racism).

This is the main theme of the novel; the question of what humanity is, and how we should treat other beings we believe to be human – including how far we should go to help them. The Moon and the Sun gives us mermaids in the court of Louis XIV, captured by Marie-Josèphe’s brother to help Louis XIV find immortality; a quest whose importance is emphasised by the fear of everyone in the novel about what would happen when his son took over (when really the problem was his great-great-grandson). McIntyre slowly builds up the humanity of the mermaids (referred to only ever as sea-monsters), though hints are given from their first appearance; and simultaneously builds up the court intrigues around the mermaids and the status of Marie-Josèphe and her brother in Louis XIV’s good graces, so that there are a combination of different incentives on the different characters involved in the novel to deal differently with the evidence of the humanity of the mermaids.

The Moon and the Sun has all the complicated interpersonal relationships of a courtly intrigue, including one gay relationship that is handled well – between characters protected from the legal and religious consequences of homosexuality by the king; and yet, the two characters involved are also rather problematically portrayed insofar as other relationships and treatment of others go. That’s actually something of a theme; with one exception, the relationships are somewhat toxic – but unfortunately the one healthy relationship in The Moon and the Sun is the one with the protagonist that involves some serious changes to her partner’s attitude to relationships in a rather problematic manner.

In the end, though, The Moon and the Sun is a well-written, thoughtfully undertaken piece of historical fantasy; it’s not perfect in its representations of relationships, though the portrayal of racial issues is strong, but perhaps worth checking out despite its flaws.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin



Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
N. K. Jemisin is a writer who I have admired since her first series, the Inheritance Trilogy, and who has only improved over the course of her succeeding novels; so I’ve been looking forward to The Fifth Season since it was announced, to the point of buying the ARC in the Con or Bust auction just to lay hands on it faster.

Warning: this review contains some SPOILERS for plot and structure.

The blurb of The Fifth Season arguably reveals one of the most interesting things Jemisin pulls off in the novel; mentioning only Essun, it ignores the two plot threads of the novel that follow Damaya and Syenite (Syen), plot threads that at the start of the novel could be roughly contemporaneously set with Essun’s journey but increasingly, as the novel continues, are obviously not, and are instead Essun’s own history. Jemisin pulls off this trick excellently; each name reflects not only a different stage in Essun’s life, but also a different person, defined by experience and by the image Essun feels it necessary to convey in order to be safe. Indeed, this code-switching narrative in The Fifth Season is one we don’t see enough of in fantasy; a look, through the eyes of one character (referred to in the second person present as Essun, in the third past for the other characters, in an early hint of the later revelation), at how one has to change one’s self-presentation for self-preservation. Essun is a member of oppressed classes, too, as a woman (the main society of the novel seems to be patriarchal, or at least the society Essun starts in is) and as an orogene, a kind of geological magic user, treated like witches by villagers and like dangerous animals to be trained and used by the main state. Watching Essun negotiate these statuses, and how she has to act because of them, is fascinating; as is watching others use different strategies to negotiate the various axes of oppression on which they fall, such as Alabaster, whose orogenic power allows him to bypass a certain amount of the self-preservation efforts that Syenite must engage in.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the cast of The Fifth Season than code-switching, that self-preservation; they’re an amazingly diverse, well-thought-out group. Essun is obviously the most complex, bearing the different selves she has been on her shoulders as she changes from a seemingly diffident wife and mother to return more to her confident self, but not unchanged by that experience; the evolution of character she undergoes across the course of the book is one of the most impressive character developments I have ever read, tying three distinct moments together and yet not letting any of those moments be static or unchanging themselves. That’s not to say that characters who only appear in one of those moments aren’t good or rounded characters, though; Jemisin has created a tremendous ensemble cast in The Fifth Season to surround her undeniable protagonist, and they’re all well-written, interesting characters, all of whom have fascinatingly different attitudes to Essun and her abilities, from Schaffa Guardian Warrant, an abusive sadist who Damaya doesn’t realise is either of those things and who is amazingly written as showing a face of benevolence over a reality of brutal cruelty, to Alabaster, the incredibly powerful orogene who doesn’t really care about the opinions of those around him but who is also a deeply sensitive person once his defences of apathy fall, and the smart, slightly unworldly Tonkee, who joins Essun on her journey only to turn out to be someone unexpected from her past. Every character has a unique voice and character, and they all have different masks they wear; no one is who one assumes them to be at first glance.

This is also a very queer book, despite its patriarchal societies. The Fifth Season‘s core relationship goes from being a purely sexual, heterosexual one to being an emotional, polyamorous, queer triad; Jemisin handles the transition, the growing feelings, the introduction of an additional character, incredibly well and beautifully, giving the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is incredibly erotic, incredibly sensual, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly human, as well as incredibly beautiful, with the kind of quality of sex scenes we have come to expect of her and the kind of emotional honesty, including conflict, that reflects reality rather than some idealised idea of polyamory. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen poly in a novel but it is certainly one of the best instances, and truly beautifully conveyed.

Of course, there’s more to The Fifth Season than character; all this is, after all, happening against the background of an apocalypse. “An” apocalypse is the best descriptor, because this is a world which is incredibly unstable and appears to undergo regular apocalypses; everyone is a survivalist, because you have to be prepared for the next time the world upheaves itself under you, and society is organised around principles that are intended to aid in that preservation, such as a caste system, although that appears to have ossified into a problematic heirarchy as time has gone on. An empire rules over small communities, an empire that has lasted through a number of these apocalypses somehow; but this apocalypse, it won’t emerge from. The Fifth Season has an awful lot going on; Damaya is learning what it is to be an orogene, how society views her because of it and what the demands of the empire on her are. Syenite is learning about heirarchies with the orogenes, and how the empire uses them – the things that they’re not told, and have to try to learn from themselves; the abuses of orogenes perpetuated by the empire. And Essun is simply trying to find her daughter, after her son is murdered by her husband for being an orogene; fleeing through this apocalyptic (the apocalypse isn’t over, so though N. K. Jemisin describes the book as post-apocalypse, I don’t think that’s quite accurate) novel. This is where the novel starts to run into some problems; each strand follows the same parallel path – a journey that ends in finding a new community – but their pacing is different and the way Jemisin times them is different, which means chapters can jar against those around them because of a different feel or approach. This is the kind of literary structural engineering I really appreciate in a novel, and Jemisin carries off the theme elegantly; but the actual mechanics of precisely how parts of it work are less smooth, less polished, than would be ideal.

In the end, though, I have no hesitation about recommending The Fifth Season to you; it’s a fantastic novel that I heartily enjoyed, and a fascinating opening to a new series from one of the best writers in fantasy.

The Fifth Season comes out August 4th from Orbit Books