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The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

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The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the phenomenal power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every outcast child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.
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N. K. Jemisin is one of only three authors to win two Hugo awards on the hop in their 65-year history (the other two, Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold, also won for two novels in the same series); The Stone Sky finishes out this multiply-Hugo-winning peri-apocalyptic series…

Inevitably, this review will contain SPOILERS for the earlier volumes in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.

The Stone Sky is a novel that really brings into central focus the concerns of the previous volumes of the series: the response of the marginalised to that marginalisation, and the way the powerful commit to marginalisation and the social structures that underlie and reinforce it. The three strands of the narrative, as this trilogy is structured so deeply around threes, all raise different aspects of that issue, and different responses by the marginalised to their marginalisations in different ways.

Essun’s is perhaps the most traditional; The Stone Sky sees her seeking to help her daughter and, through peaceful revolution, overturn the established order, by simply taking away any need for the violence of it. Jemisin doesn’t write Essun as naive, but as optimistic; hopeful that once the stills don’t need the orogenes to survive, they can live side by side, reliance not fuelling fear and resentment. This is the thread the narrative has largely been carried on so in the first two books, so The Stone Sky sees Essun struggling with it as Castrima pulls away from her for her actions in The Obelisk Gate. The tensions, Jemisin suggests, are not going to disappear from one heroic act, or one lifetime, but one lifetime can lay the foundations for them.

Her daughter has had different life experiences; as with Ana in A Song For Quiet, Nassun’s answer to the injustice and violent inequality of the world is to burn it down and destroy it. Again, Jemisin doesn’t present this as a false view of the world; it is one born out of anger and pain, as opposed to the hope that drives Essun, and its destructive end is acknowledged whilst also suggesting that it is not unreasonable. The anger that runs through this narrative, and also the complicated love, is palpable, and powerful; Jemisin really conveys, despite the third person narration, Nassun’s emotional state in these chapters.

The balance between the two is to be found in the new narrative of the novel, the voice of Hoa, who has narrated the previous novels to the reader (to Essun, for reasons revealed at the end). The Stone Sky sees him narrating his origin story or creation story, depending on your reading; it is the one that most nakedly engages with ideas of power, race, and genocide, being very explicit in its discussions of racially charged oppressions and racist social structures. This is also the narrative thread where Jemisin makes her strongest points about the way racist systems, and people, see those they marginalise; and the way slave societies necessarily see those they keep enslaved. That may make this narrative sound incredibly academic and abstruse; Jemisin is far from that, however, ensuring that The Stone Sky never loses sight of the importance of story and emotional resonance while dealing with these issues.

The three narrative strands are kept separate, although obviously linked, until the close of the novel, when Jemisin brings them together dramatically; The Stone Sky hinges on which choice, one born of hope or of hopelessness, its characters will make. The way she balances three narratives across the novel, and indeed the series, is absolutely brilliant on a structural level, and really gives a sense of grand expanse and power to the story. The conclusion is a tragic and moving one, in its inevitability; The Broken Earth was always tragic, and reaches the apogee of that in its ending.

N. K. Jemisin has written a true masterwork and an absolutely brilliant capstone to one of the best trilogies out there; The Stone Sky wouldn’t be unworthy of being the first book to win an author the Hugo three years in a row…

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The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

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THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.

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.
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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

The Awakened Kingdom by N. K. Jemisin

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

But for Eino, the young Darren man whom Shill has befriended, the god-child’s silly games are serious business. Trapped in an arranged marriage and prohibited from pursuing his dreams, he has had enough. He will choose his own fate, even if he must betray a friend in the process — and Shill might just have to grow up faster than she thinks.
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I talked about N. K. Jemisin in a post back in May last year, and specifically about the Inheritance Trilogy. This novella was written for inclusion in the omnibus edition of the trilogy, a might tome of over 1400 pages; and takes place after the events of the entire trilogy have concluded, so talking about The Awakened Kingdom involves spoiling the novels somewhat. So,

SPOILERS AHEAD.

The Awakened Kingdom is centred on a new godling, created to fill the void left by Sieh’s death. It’s a coming of age story, but an unusual one; Jemisin manages to pack the entire coming of age story of a human into two months in a godling’s life, and since the story is told in first person, also conveys that sense of maturation and growth in her style. The story starts with a very enthusiastic but not terribly coherent and easily distractable narrator, and closes with a narrator with a greater sense of the world and an emotional weight that really is meaningful; Jemisin handles this transition across the course of The Awakened Kingdom very impressively, so that by the end it is clear we’re being told the narrative by a mature individual.

It’s also a very dense novella. For just over a hundred pages, Jemisin packs a lot of things into The Awakened Kingdom; the necessity of compromise, the responsibility that comes with power, the nature of privilege and how carefully it must be dealt with, and the vitality of individual agency. There’s also critique of the patriarchy, in the form of critique of a matriarchy in the novel; Jemisin switches that up so excellently that the reader is almost thrown by it, but when we get down to the serious critique which takes place it becomes obvious just how Jemisin is talking about this world. Jemisin has always been a political writer in some sense of the term, and that is no different here; she uses the coming of age story to also talk about a coming to political consciousness for her protagonist, and The Awakened Kingdom is stronger for it.

The cast Jemisin presents us with is unexpectedly small, given the huge casts of the rest of the Inheritance Trilogy; aside from our narrator there are five or six other significant, recurring characters, each of whom has to play a major part in the maturation of our young godling. They are each unique and bring an interesting perspective to the story, whether that be a youth rebelling against the strictures of his society, a mother enforcing those strictures on her son, a woman who is trained to help godlings come to themselves and has to learn how to do it, a godling who doesn’t have any interest in helping anyone yet does anyway, and more. Each has a very distinct personality and viewpoint, and Jemisin makes sure The Awakened Kingdom has sympathy with all of them; this isn’t a didactic political tract, or rather, it’s a thoughtful one, which acknowledges both sides of a debate even while coming down on one of those sides.

Really, that idea of balance is at the heart of The Awakened Kingdom; balance between genders, balance between individual friends, balance between parent and child, between romantic partners, between young and old. Jemisin has always written fascinatingly on topics around social justice, but has not addressed in quite so head on a manner what that justice means, or how to claim it; but here, the idea of power and its proper use, of how to claim power, of the vital importance of balance to power and justice, are all at the core of the novella.

The Awakened Kingdom is a fascinating, beautiful and very readable exploration of those questions, and I heartily recommend it to you, along with the rest of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

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Queering the Genre: N. K. Jemisin

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N. K. Jemisin is one of those writers who, having published her first novel in 2010, has rather exploded onto the bookshelves of the genre scene; since then she has published four more novels, finishing one series and writing another from start to finish; she’s got another novel in the pipeline for release in 2015 (pushed back from August 2014 so that she can once again get a whole series out in relatively short succession), and a novella in the world of her first trilogy coming out in December this year. And that’s excluding her short fiction. She’s also been nominated for a number of awards, including three Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice awards (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Shadowed Sun) and a Locus award.

Spoilers follow for the Inheritance Trilogy and for the Dreamblood Duology

She’s also a woman of colour writing about characters of colour many of whom are queer, in non-Western cultures, and hanging one series entirely on the queerness of her characters.

Let me repeat that; one of the most prolific novellists to appear in the genre in the last half-decade is a woman of colour, who writes about characters of colour, in non-Western cultures, and centred her first series on a queer relationship between gods. This (I hope) is the future of our genre.

The Inheritance Trilogy is a series about imperialism and colonialism, about power and privilege, about power relations and their effects… and about love, and how love can go wrong. The events of the three books take place over a long chronological spread, and can almost be read as standalone, although that risks missing the interesting developments from novel to novel. Jemisin’s world was created by two gods, Nahadoth and Itempas, both gendered male (for the most part; Nahadoth has a penchant for changing his gender sometimes, but is for the most part male), who are lovers, until they create the female Enefa; at which point a polyamorous relationship begins, until Itempas – “Bright Lord of Light” – grows jealous, murders Enefa and imprisons Nahadoth. That’s the backstory to the first book; don’t say Jemisin doesn’t make life interesting! The trilogy follows the consequences of this, and in so doing, look at love and the nature of it quite fascinatingly; but what they also do is refuse to mark sexuality as a “special status”. It’s essentially a thing that is just there, not worth comment; and the refusal to pin down Nahadoth’s gender simply as male is well carried out an meshes interestingly with my own queer experience. They’re also straight-up well written, of course!

The Dreamblood Duology on the other hand makes sexuality a marked state. Njiri’s love for Ehiru is forbidden, not because it is homosexual attraction, but because it is sexual attraction at all; Gatherers are supposed to be asexual, and indeed passionless, beings. The Killing Moon uses that necessity of emotionless to explore how important emotion is, how damaging suppressing it can be, and again, the importance of love; unlike The Inheritance Trilogy, however, here love is a redeeming force, something that can bring peace to people. Sexuality per se becomes a marked state, heterosexuality as much as homosexuality, for the euthaniser-priests the Gatherers; this approach again yields fascinating results in the novel, as Nijiri’s mix of shame and love play out (in, perhaps problematically, the context of both unrequited love and a master-apprentice relationship).

Jemisin’s sympathy for her characters is both consistent and amazing, as is her portrayal of a number of different cultures, something that appears across her work; Jemisin refuses to go down the typical epic fantasy route, using some few tropes of the genre but otherwise striking out into largely untapped territory, drawing on a number of non-Western cultures for elements to create wholly new fantastical cultures (fantastical in the centrality of, and their reliance on, magic) for both the Dreamblood Duology and The Inheritance Trilogy. This is innovative work that places queer identities, and perhaps more to the point queer people of colour, at its heart; and does not make them remarkable for having agency, being capable, or loving, but rather treats those as the baseline norm that they are.

If you’re looking for queer characters of colour, a good mix of genders in the characters, and some fantastic non-Western settings in your epic fantasy, N. K. Jemisin is a great place to start. Read her works, ye literate, and rejoice.

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