Kate’s Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

32920226Book: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Review: Every once in awhile, a book comes along that just blows me the hell away. One that feels like an elevated experience just reading it, pouring over it, immersing oneself in it. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward did that for me, and I am still staggered by how fantastic it was. I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jesmyn Ward, one of the best writers out there today, bar none. I’ve read two of her other books, both of which are transcendent and incredibly emotional. The first is the novel “Salvage the Bones”, a story about a rural and poor African American family living in Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina lurches and looms towards them. The other is “Men We Reaped”, a memoir about the numerous black men in Ward’s life who all died far too young, brutal casualties of overt and systemic racism that is all too present in the U.S. When I heard she had a new book coming out, I requested it, and then steeled myself for it as I picked it up.

The first thing that I must mention is the characters and characterization in this novel. We follow a couple main perspectives. The first is Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who has been raised mostly by his grandparents (Mam and Pop), as his mother is addicted to drugs and his father is in prison. He has also taken on the caregiver role to his little sister Kayla, wanting to keep her safe from the ills of the world. Mam is very ill with cancer, and Pop tells Jojo stories from the past in hopes that Jojo can learn from them. The second is Leonie, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Her boyfriend Michael is getting out of prison soon, and her all encompassing love for him blinds her to most other things. Her drug addiction is fueled in part by the fact that she sees visions of her dead brother Given while she’s high. The final perspective is from Richie, the ghost of a thirteen year old boy who died at Parchman, the prison Michael is at. Richie knew Pop when he was alive, and he has unfinished business with him. Jojo starts seeing Richie on their travels, as Richie knows that there’s a connection there. All of these characters are well rounded and explored, and I got a feel for every one of them (as well as a number of the other characters like Mam and Pop). I understood the motivations of each of them. I was especially moved by Leonie, as while she makes terrible and selfish decisions when it comes to her children, I completely understood why she made those choices, and how factors both within her control and outside of it have made her into the person that she is.

The themes of this book also blew me away. For one, I’m a huge sucker for a ghost story, and this one has the feel of a Southern Gothic novel with the isolation and wide open spaces that still feel claustrophobic. But Ward brings in other ghosts that haunt this country and our culture, as the setting and characters are still plagued by the racism that has so infected this country. From the remnants of Jim Crow laws to the consequences of the War on Drugs to police brutality and violence, the journey that this family takes, physical and emotional, always has the specter of racism hanging over it. Ward doesn’t offer any solutions or answers or happy endings of conclusions to this, and all you can hope for is that this family will continue to survive in face of explicit (Michael’s family) and implicit racism that surrounds them. It’s really the perfect use of a ghost story, as the all too true horrors of our racist culture and society still haunt us, as much as we may hate to acknowledge it.

And the writing is just beautiful. Ward has a serious talent for creating a story and an imagery that leaps and flows in the pages of this book. I felt like I could see everything that was happening in my mind’s eye, and I was so engrossed I devoured this book in a day’s time. Ward is an author who is being called a ‘modern Faulkner’ by a number of people, and while I understand the sentiment (examinations of the American South are a commonality between the two), I think that she easily stands in a league of her own. This book is exactly why, and I urge everyone to give it a try and see why, because nothing I write here will be able to do it justice.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, no question. Please please please go read it and see for yourselves.

Rating 10: I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. A heart rendering story about literal and metaphorical ghosts, family, the South, and Americana.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2017”, and “Anticipated/Best 2017 Literary Fiction”.

Find “Sing, Unburied, Sing” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Stone Sky”

31817749Book: “The Stone Sky” by N. K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC provided by Orbit

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

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene 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.

Previously Reviewed: “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate”

Review: At this point, I’m honestly baffled by N. K. Jemisin. The fact that the previous two books both won Hugo awards is awe-inspiring enough. But to not miss a single step in a complete trilogy? Crazy impressive. What’s more, as I was reading this book and unpacking the many, many more new layers being added to an already impossibly complex  history and world, I was seriously questioning my own mental capacity to even keep track of it all, let alone write an entire trilogy with all of these details in mind from the first. All of this, she had to have all of this in her mind when she started the first book! These aren’t tiny little breadcrumbs that could be sprinkled in early with only vague ideas for how they are going to be used later. This is an entire history, on top of another history, on top of ANOTHER HISTORY and our slow-revealed narrator, Hoa, has been talking about it all right in front of our faces since the very beginning! I really can’t express my bafflement at the mastery that one needs to possess to juggle this type of storytelling.

But I should probably start a more coherent review at this point. When we finished off “The Obelisk Gate,” Nassun and Essun were set up on opposite sides of a final confrontation that would determine the future of the world. Nassun, broken, hurt, and disillusioned to the point of hopelessness about humanity, sees only one way forward: it can’t be fixed, so let’s just end the bad things. Essun, on the other hand, has only recently begun to see that through all the brokenness, through all the loss of children, family, lovers, and communities, there still might be a way forward, a way to change things and fix what isn’t right.

These two dynamics are so incredibly strong. Through these three books, we’ve seen a lifetime of pain and horror through Essun’s eyes. She has been devastated, horrified, apathetic, furious, and here, in the last, she still manages to find hope. Her time with the comm of Castrima has opened her eyes to a new way of life where orogene and still can live and work together. It’s not perfect by any means, and there are a million fights ahead to make progress, but here, in the end, she sees that fight as one that is worth having and saving.

Nassun sees nothing worth saving, but for Schaffa, and even he is plagued by a life riddled with pain and confusion. Wouldn’t it be best for it all to just end? Her story has been the most tragic in this series. Essun at least has been an adult for the majority of it, and to some extent (while very small at times), she’s had the ability to choose and make a path for herself, even if that path leads into more darkness. Nassun is a child, and while she’s had to grow up much too fast, she still sees the world through eyes of a person whose only lived 11 years on it, and those 11 years have been filled with nothing but abandonment, horror, and no signs that things will ever improve. After killing her father at the end of the last book, Nassun is done. If even a father sees only a monster in his orogene child, then she will be that monster and end it all, for the sake of all monsters everywhere.

Nassun and Essun’s stories are poignant and beautiful, and by setting the two on opposite sides of this fight, as a reader, you’re caught wishing for the impossible. And Jemisin delivers it! The conclusion to these two’s story ended in the only way it could and was immensely satisfying.

But this isn’t only Nassun and Essun’s book. While in the last book we learned much more about the stone eaters and their involvement in this war for the future of the Earth, here we go even farther back in time, back to the great civilization in the past that understood magic just well enough to become greedy, building the Obelisk Gate in an attempt to tap the life magic of the Earth as well and triggering the Shattering. This is Hoa’s origin story, finally. And with it comes, you guessed it, more tragedy and evidence of the brokenness of humanity, the shortsightedness that comes with greed and small lives, and the ever present fear for those who find themselves in power and are frantic to keep it. We learn how and why the Obelisks were created, we learn more about the living Evil Earth itself, we see the history of the Guardians and who they were, and we see that the same terrible choices have been made again and again.

Not only do I not want to spoil the many reveals presented in this book, I’m fairly certain that I need to immediately re-read the entire series to fully appreciate the story that’s been told and finally connect all of the dots of this complicated world. If you asked me to  storyboard this series in chronological order, I’m pretty sure I’d struggle. But that is absolutely no criticism of the book. The best books, in my opinion, are the ones that are so fully alive that you can’t possible fully understand them in one (or even two!) go-arounds.

So hopefully by this time you’ve already read the first two in the series, because here’s your chance to get your hands on the final book in this amazing series! Enter to win a paperback copy of “The Stone Sky!” Giveaway ends Sept. 21 and is open to U.S. entries only. Happy reading!

Enter the Giveaway!

Rating 10: If this doesn’t win another Hugo, I’ll be shocked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obelisk Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: “#ReadPOC: List of Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color” and “Best Picks: Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Novels of 2017.”

Find “The Stone Sky” at your library using WorldCat




Serena’s Review: “City of Blades”

23909755Book: “City of Blades” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, January 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

Previously read: “City of Stairs”

Review: It’s been over a year now since I read the first book in this series, “City of Stairs” and in that time the third and final book, “City of Miracles” has been published. I’d like to say I plan my reviews like this, as I have a preference for reading series in a binge-like style and this works best when that series is completed. But the honest answer is that I get distracted by the million other good books out there, so when I am reminded of a good series by a more recent publication…it just a lucky coincidence for my binge-reading style!

That said, “City of Blades” is not a direct sequel to “City of Stairs,” picking up several years after the fact and re-focusing the story on General Turyin Mulaghesh who we met in the first book when she fought off a resurgence of Gods in Bulikov alongside our heroes of that book, Shara and Sigrud. Now, years later, Shara has been elected Prime Minister, Sigrud has been roped into a delegate role, representing his nation of origin, and Mulaghesh has retreated in retirement, suddenly quitting, for unknown reasons, the political atmosphere in which she had been steadily rising. But things are not all well on the Continent and Shara, whose popularity has greatly waned (turns out many people can’t and won’t just forget a past that was ruled by cruel Gods), calls on one of the few people she still trusts to discover what has been going on in the city of Voortystan, the capital city of the late Voortya, Goddess of War. So Mulaghesh is off, albeit grumpily, to a city that is in the midst of a forced transformation to the modern, but whose past is perhaps more close than anyone would have guessed.

I had really and truly forgotten just how excellent this series is. This book, like “City of Stairs” before it,  checks all the boxes for fantasy I love. World-building is excellent. The characters are complicated, interesting, and, importantly, have a wicked sense of humor. The themes are drawn upon using masterful technique.

While Shara’s story was one of a young woman discovering her dreams are not quite what she once thought, Mulaghesh’s story is that of a middle-aged woman who feels that the imprint she’s left on the world is not one to be proud of. Throughout the story, we have a slow reveal of Mulaghesh’s past history with the military, the choices she and her troops were forced to make, and the influence these choices have had on her life since. Throughout this all, Mulaghesh’s voice is strong, surly, and darkly witty.

Her own story ties neatly into a larger discussion of what it means to be a soldier. Voortya, the Goddess of War, and her followers created a complete culture around this question. War was art. War was life. War was at the center of every choice her people made. And now, decades after the Gods have been killed off, is this fact any different?

One thing that particularly stood out as I was reading this, and that makes Bennett’s writing and his characters so excellent is that he never dumbs things down. Not the mysteries or history for the reader: there were many times that I had to stop reading for a bit to re-order my thinking of the timeline of this world, or how this one magical element or another worked again, as it had been explained chapters ago. And, especially, not his own protagonist. All too often I’ll read a story where the heroine fails to ask the most obvious questions. This is, of course, necessary by the author’s thinking to draw out the mystery or the suspense. In reality, all this does is frustrate the reader and make your characters seem stupid. Mulaghesh is a smart protagonist, and it was beyond satisfying that at multiple points in this story, right when I came up with a theory about what was going on, she almost immediately voiced it herself. This might seem like a small thing, but I truly think that when it comes to the general enjoyment of books like this, it is one of the most crucial elements.

The fantasy elements that are tied up with this complicated history of the Continent and their Gods almost played even better in this book than in the first. Here, we have a deep-dive into one specific divinity and how her influence shaped a people and a city. And, as can be expected with this series at this point, the lingering remains of these long-gone Gods are not quite as distant as the people would wish. I particularly loved the way Voortya’s legacy was brought to life in this book. After the first story, there seemed to be only one path laid forth for bringing these Gods’ stories back into this world and I was half-expecting Bennett to simply recycle this process. Oh me of little faith.

Beyond Mulaghesh herself (who is an utter joy), this book saw the return of our protagonists from the first book, as well. Shara makes a few brief appearances, but Sigrud plays a vital role. Alongside these familiar faces, we get an excellent cast of new characters, including Signe, Sigrud’s long-lost daughter who is a brilliant technician and hopes to restore the city of Voortaystan to a place of influence and innovation.

It’s hard to say whether I liked one of these book more than the other. While “City of Stairs” laid forth an enormous new world and history, full of lost Gods and a bright-eyed leading lady, “City of Blades” presents a darker, more intricate look at one city, one God, and one woman who struggles to define herself and to determine what it means to have lived a life full of violence.

While technically you could probably read this book without checking out the first in the series, why would you?? But for those who were wondering where the story could go from there, never fear. “City of Blades” is a worthy successor and now I’ll move right along to “City of Miracles,” thank you very much. Binging commence!

Rating 10: If you love detailed fantasy stories with a strong dose of action and a grumpy but lovable heroine, this is the book for you!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Blades” is on these Goodreads lists: “Favorite Epic Grit” and “Best Sci Fi Books with Female Main Characters.”

Find “City of Blades” at your library using WorldCat

Serena’s Review: “The Obelisk Gate”

26228034Book: “The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.

It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.

The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.

Previously Reviewed: “The Fifth Season”

Spoiler warning!

Review: “The Obelisk Gate” holds the dubious position of needing to tell the middle of the story. The scene has been set. The characters have been introduced (or, in this case, most of the characters are now realized to be the same person). But we can’t get to the finale yet. Many series in many different media formats have struggled with how to tell this portion of the story. But, as we’ve recently seen with its win of a second consecutive Hugo for the series, “The Obelisk Gate” falls into none of these traps.

And the biggest factor contributing to the avoidance of this “mid series slump” is Jemisin’s decision to double down on her characters. We now have Essun’s full story, knowing her to be the woman at the center of all three storylines in the previous book. With this knowledge, Essun’s struggles to make a life for herself in yet another comm hit that much closer to home. We’ve seen her try and fail, try and fail, always defined and burdened by her own power and the fear and hatred that she and other orogenes inspire in others. Having found Alabaster once again, only to know that she is losing him slowly to strange process in which his body is changing to stone, Essun’s journey in this book is one of self-acceptance. Whether it is wanted or not, Alabaster’s grand mission, to return the Moon to its regular orbit, is falling on her shoulders, the only orogene now living with the power and training to take up this mantle.

Through Essun, and Hoa (our recently discovered narrator and stone eater companion to Essun), the mysteries behind the obelisks, their connection to orogenes, and the history of the long-fought battle between Earth, stone eaters, orogenes, and humans slowly unravels. As I mentioned in the last review, Jemisin is a master at revealing answers to questions slowly and steadily, all too often bringing with these tidbits of information even more questions. This story is not for the impatient. It is for those who wish to bask in an immense, complicated world with a fully-realized, and half-forgotten, history, alongside characters who are often still just as much in the dark as we are.

Further, in this book we are given the added perspectives of Nassun, Essun’s lost daughter, and even a few chapters from Schaffa, the Guardian who tormented and tracked Damaya/Syenite/Essun all those years ago.

Nassun’s story takes us back to the beginning of the first book, with her discovery of her father standing over the body of her little brother whom he had just finished beating to death after discovering his powers. Through Nassun’s eyes, we see a child trying to re-align a world that has fallen into chaos, confusion and fear. To survive, she learns to manipulate those around her (most tragically, her own father), and struggles to understand her own abilities and why she is so hated. Is she a monster? And if she is, is it wrong that she loves what makes her monstrous? Through Nassun, we see what life is like for “undiscovered” roggas, those who must do whatever it takes to simply survive, without the so-called protection of the Folcrum that Damaya/Syenite/Essun grew up within. But Nassun does have  Guardian: Schaffa.

But this is not the Schaffa we knew. To survive the reign of destruction that Syenite brought down around her in grief and rage at the loss of her little family so many years ago, Schaffa commits the sin that no Guardian is ever meant to: a closer deal with Evil Earth himself. Through this process, however, Schaffa both loses pieces of himself but also gains a new sense of self through this loss. This new self fights against the horrors that his kind are meant to inflict on the orogenes, and when he meets a young girl who looks achingly familiar, and whose father is in the midst of slowly rejecting her, he takes her under his wing.

This is at true testament of steady, sure-handed characterization, to take a character as hated as Schaffa was in the first book and to make him sympathetic, even a hero (antihero?) in his own way. Through Schaffa, we see the role that the Guardians could or perhaps more importantly, should have played in the lives of their young charges. He teaches and guides Nassun, and, most importantly, provides the one sure place that she feels safety as her complete self.

As I briefly mentioned above, now that Hoa has become a more fully-understood character in his own right, we also begin to unbury the many layers of stone eater culture and history. Surprising no one, it is all much more complicated than anyone had thought. The fight for the future (the fight for whether there will even be a future) is one that involves many factions, all working to gather support for their own cause. There is a reason that powerful orogenes attract stone eaters…

It is almost impossible to review this book as its own work. In many ways, this series is reading like three long chapters in one book. To discuss this story is to discuss the first and to predict the third. And while this presents a challenges for analyzing this book in the traditional sense (with a beginning, middle, and end), it makes for a sort of comfort going into the last book in the series. After all, the first two chapters has been rock solid (ha!), why on earth (ha!) wouldn’t the last? We’ll find out soon enough! And what’s more, I’ll be giving away a copy of “The Stone Sky” alongside my review so keep an eye out for that coming up soon!

Rating 10: Second verse, strong as the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Obelisk Gate” is on these Goodreads lists: “Post-Science / Next Age Fantasy” and “Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color.”

Find “The Obelisk Gate” at your library using WorldCat




Serena’s Review: “The Fifth Season”

19161852Book: “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: This is the way the world ends…for the last time.

A season of endings has begun.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

Review: In anticipation of the third and final book in “The Broken Earth” trilogy, I’m reviewing the first two books in the series. At this point, to anyone who is paying attention to fantasy/sci-fi fiction, N.K. Jemisin is a name to pay attention to, and ‘The Fifth Season” perfectly highlights the strengths that make her such a notable author. Intricate and complicated world-building, solid and diverse characters, and a stark analysis of oppression, grief, power, and revenge all told while playing with narrative styles.

Our story takes place in the Stillness, a land that is anything but still, regularly wracked with “world ending” natural disasters sent forth from Father Earth who is known to hate the life that has infested his surface. Over time, the people of the Stillness have come up with a series of guidelines (stonelore) for surviving through these cataclysmic events called “Fifth Seasons.” There are strict use-castes that every individual lives by. Each is a member of a comm, and those who are “comm less” are deemed very unlucky to not have a shelter when the next Season comes. But most of all, those with the power to cool and manipulate the Earth, orogenes, are kept within strict confines, their power reigned in and directed as society deems fit.

This is a story told from the perspective of the oppressed, and what’s more, it is seemingly those who are most powerful, and most responsible for the ongoing safety of the world, who are kept so neatly shackled by those around them. If discovered on their own, orogenes, or “roggas” (an insulting slur for these people), are often beaten to death. But, at the same time, when raised within the strict confines of the Fulcrum (an organization created to monitor orogenes), they are put to work to benefit society. This work comes with a semblance of respect and individual control, but as the story progresses, we see that even here, “orogene” is just a polite term for “rogga” and if the oppression isn’t as blatant as a comm beating, it is equally, if not more terribly, present in these false tenures of respectability.

Jemisin once again plays with narrative style while presenting this story. We have three characters whose stories we follow. And one, Essun, a middle age woman whose orogene son has recently been beaten to death after his father discovered his abilities, tells her story in second person tense. This is odd at first, but ties in deeply with the larger structure that Jemisin is attempting to create. Essun is cynical, powerful, and has years of history beneath her belt that drives her story of revenge after another Fifth Season begins, and one that she knows will likely be the last for humanity.

The other two characters tell the beginning and middle experience of a rogga growing up in this world. Damaya has just been taken in to the Fulcrum, a reprieve from a family that rejected her, and finds comfort in the strict guidelines of this place, even if those guidelines hurt her. And Syenite is a grown member of the Fulcrum, set on earning her way up the ladder of the Fulcrum power system, but beginning to struggle against these same guidelines, especially when she is sent out under the tutelage of a powerful (but mad?) mentor, one whom she is expected to breed with and produce a child (the Fulcrum is nothing if not practical about continuing its existence).

Throughout all of these stories are sprinkled in mysteries upon mysteries. What are the strange obelisks that drift through the skies? What deadciv purpose could they serve? What do the creatures called stone-eaters want with the orogenes? And who is the mysterious narrator who pops in sporadically between chapters to pepper in extra tidbits of knowledge, always speaking to “you?” And what makes this story so excellent is that even as some of these questions are answered, we see that we are still only scraping the surface of this strange world and society.

“The Fifth Season” is everything one could want out of speculative, science fiction. Boundlessly creative, fully realized, and using these structures and characters to speak deeply to societal challenges recognizable in our own world. This book deserves every accolade (and it received many! Winning the Hugo Award and being nominated for the Nebula, among others). Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore/library/Amazon store today to check out this book! And what’s more, a preview, the second book is just as good!

Rating 10: A spectacular show of force in science fiction writing! Three cheers for Jemisin!

Readery’s Advisory:

“The Fifth Season” is on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Traditional Epic Fantasy” and “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”

Find “The Fifth Season” at your library using WorldCat

Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!


Serena’s Review: “Thick as Thieves”

8306741Book: “Thick as Thieves” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments,. Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox, and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tied to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia.

A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for a meager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead.

Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis hang in the balance.

Review: As I made abundantly clear in my gushing ALA posts, I’ve very much been looking forward to “Thick as Thieves,” the fifth installment in the “Queen’s Thief” series and was beyond thrilled when I got to meet Megan Whalen Turner several times and snag a signed copy of the book. It immediately jumped to the top of my reading list, and I am happy to report that it was worth the wait for its release!

As is now the pattern with these stories, our protagonist has once again changed in this story. This time around we follow Kamet, a slave to the Mede ambassador. We technically met this character several books ago when the Mede ambassador was visiting Attolia and attempting to bully the queen into an alliance. It was quite a lot of fun watching him be sent home in shame, Kamet in tow. Here, we meet up again with Kamet in the years that have followed. From his perspective, while the embarrassment of what happened to his master was unfortunate, Attolia is still a backwaters country with a fool of a king and in all respects he would like to simply wash his hands of his time there. Besides, good things are coming his way. Slave or not, he sees a future of power and influence ahead as the right hand man to the to-be Mede emperor.

These beginning scenes documenting Kamet’s life as a slave serve as an important insight into his head. As a reader, we are trained to look at his situation and pity him. He’s a slave, no amount of power and influence should be worth it. Kamet is both a reliable and unreliable narrator in this way. His perspective is not completely false; he does have power and influence in his position, much more so than other slaves, and, importantly, more so even than other free men. Not only does he choose to remain a slave when he is initially presented with the opportunity to flee, but throughout the story we see that he has become very arrogant from this position. He thinks quite a lot of himself and the role he has played, often looking down on the other slaves as well as entire countries like Attolia.

But on the other hand, Kamet is unreliable. He’s clearly suffering from some version of Stockholm syndrome, more worried about the embarrassment of being seen to have been beaten after an error in judgement than enraged that he was beaten at all. He blames himself for causing the situation that forced his “good” master’s hand.

After he is forced to flee Mede after the death of his master, it was great reading about the slow transition Kamet undergoes. The Attolian guard is a steady, consistent presence of another way to live. He doesn’t speak much at all, and when he does, Kamet must constantly re-evaluate his views of Attolia, the Attolian soldier, and himself.

The story is essentially a travelogue following these two characters’ flight through Mede attempting to gain passage by ship back to Attolia. For a book that has many action sequences (fleeing from slavers, hiding from guards, etc), it also felt like a steady character study of these two characters, but particularly Kamet himself. I’ve always loved Whalen Turner’s ability to make the reader fall in love with each new character she presents. Even more challenging, she often starts with characters we aren’t pre-disposed to love. Kamet is the same; his arrogance and seemingly wilful ignorance can make him frustrating in the beginning. But there’s great chemistry between him and the Attolian and it was a lovely story reading about Kamet essentially rediscovering who he is now that the one thing he has defined himself as, a powerful slave, has been taken away from him.

Other than great characters, we can always expect great twists from this author, and this book is no different. I was actually able to predict a few of the story turns, but there were others that took me completely by surprise. Never fear, Gen does make an appearance towards the end and is just as clever, confusing, and appealing as ever. Throughout the series, the scope of his schemes has had to constantly expand, from tricking a few people in the first book, to maneuvering entire countries and empires in later books. The thrill remains as we watch him triumph, oh so casually, over these other power houses who have all dismissed him as so much foolishness.

Coming as no surprise now, I completely recommend this story. It is fairly necessary to have read the other books in the series before reading this one, I would say. But hey, if you haven’t already, all the more exciting for you since they are all so great!

Rating 10: Worth any wait.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Thick as Thieves” is a new book and isn’t on m any relevant Goodreads lists (other than ones titled things like “Books that need to come out sooner!!!”), but it should be on “Books with Unreliable Narrators.”

Find “Thick as Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief” and “The Queen of Attolia” and “The King of Attolia” and “A Conspiracy of Kings”