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

Kate’s Review: “The Changeling”

31147267Book: “The Changeling” by Victor LaValle

Publishing Info: Spiegel & Grau, June 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: One man’s thrilling journey through an enchanted world to find his wife, who has disappeared after seemingly committing an unforgiveable act of violence, from the award-winning author of the The Devil in Silver and Big Machine. Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. 

Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Review: Victor LaValle is one of our most under-appreciated dark fantasy/horror writers today, and I say this with conviction. Everything I have read by him I have really enjoyed. I was sufficiently creeped out by “The Devil in Silver” and deeply fascinated by his Lovecraft deconstruction “The Ballad of Black Tom”. And now I come to his newest book, “The Changeling”. Changelings, as I’m sure you may know, were a superstition that people back in the day had, in which a fairy or other kind of creature would kidnap a child and leave an imposter, or ‘changeling’, in it’s place. This concept no doubt led to a lot of abuse, cruelty, and murder towards children over the years, specifically those with developmental disabilities. Nowadays we just think of them as folklore, seen in books like “Outside Over There”, or as metaphors like in the movie “The Changeling” with Angelina Jolie. But LaValle has taken the changeling myth and given it a new, dark story that I deeply enjoyed.

One of the many things I liked about “The Changeling” is that it really kept me guessing as I read it. While it’s true that at the end of the day I knew that yes, this HAD to have supernatural elements to it, it also made me think about the very real issue of post-partum depression and the pressure on new parents, mothers in particular, to be great at it right from the start. If this book had been about an untreated mental illness and the tragedies that can happen because of it, LaValle would have told a sensitive and thoughtful story about tragedies that we just don’t like to talk about or acknowledge. Even though it was fantasy, so many elements of it felt incredibly real and plausible, from the horrors of modern technology making us less safe than we can imagine, to the struggles new parents face from family, society, and themselves. He also does a great job incorporating themes of race and gender into this story, with racism and misogyny being underlying and indirect villains towards Apollo and Emma alike. So many real world horrors come into this book and yet all have a dreamy sort of air about them, and it left me feeling under a spell as well as on edge.

There is also a lovely theme in this book that has to do with books and storytelling. Apollo is not only a book dealer, he is greatly attached to a copy of the book “Outside Over There”, one of the few things that his father left for him before he up and vanished. Apollo’s love for this book about a girl who needs to save her baby sister from those that stole her away may seem a bit on the nose for the story, but the other themes of paternal abandonment and parental failure and anxiety are also present. Apollo’s father wasn’t there for him, much like Ida’s father is away. Apollo’s love for his child blinds him when things may not be what they seem, just as Ida’s love for her sister blinded her. Parental failings and anxieties both in “Outside Over There” and “The Changeling” dance between the pages, as Ida has to grow up fast when her mother isn’t there for her emotionally and Apollo has to grow up fast when his mother can’t be there for him physically. Even New York becomes a dreamy fairy world you can’t quite trust, just like the world of Outside Over there, which Ida falls into when she starts her journey going out the window the wrong way. And there are fair reminders in this book that trolls are no longer just mystical creatures that want to eat up children, but are very real dangers in a world where your life is online for the entire world to see. That kind of felt heavy-handed at times, but overall it was just another clever way to update our fairy tale for an NYC setting.

I think that if I had a quibble with it, it would be that it was mostly from a male point of view. I would have liked to have seen some of Emma’s journey as well. I understand that revealing her secrets was another subversion of fairy tales and the roles that women are held to (damsels or witches), but I think that her own path would have been highly enjoyable to read.

A haunting and breathtaking story, “The Changeling” is dark and sad, but also hopeful and vibrant. If you want a modern and dark fairy tale, this book should be one that you put on your ‘to read’ list.

Rating 8: A complex and dark fairy tale, “The Changeling” is a beautiful and striking work of dark fantasy/horror with a modern twist and a relevant commentary.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Changeling” is included on the Gooreads lists “Beautifully Disturbing”, and “2017 SFF by Authors of Color”.

Find “The Changeling” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Rebel Angels”

51428Book: “Rebel Angels” by LIbba Bray

Publishing Info: Ember, December 2006

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

Book Description: Ah, Christmas! Gemma Doyle is looking forward to a holiday from Spence Academy, spending time with her friends in the city, attending ritzy balls, and on a somber note, tending to her ailing father. As she prepares to ring in the New Year, 1896, a handsome young man, Lord Denby, has set his sights on Gemma, or so it seems. Yet amidst the distractions of London, Gemma’s visions intensify–visions of three girls dressed in white, to whom something horrific has happened, something only the realms can explain…

The lure is strong, and before long, Gemma, Felicity, and Ann are turning flowers into butterflies in the enchanted world of the realms that Gemma alone can bring them to. To the girls’ great joy, their beloved Pippa is there as well, eager to complete their circle of friendship.

But all is not well in the realms–or out. The mysterious Kartik has reappeared, telling Gemma she must find the Temple and bind the magic, else great disaster will befall her. Gemma’s willing to do his intrusive bidding, despite the dangers it brings, for it means she will meet up with her mother’s greatest friend–and now her foe, Circe. Until Circe is destroyed, Gemma cannot live out her destiny. But finding Circe proves a most perilous task.

Spoilers for “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

Review: Oof, this review, it’s going to be tough. It seems that “Rebel Angels” is widely believed to be the stronger book of the first two in Bray’s “Gemma Doyle” series. But man, I had some problems with this one.

But first, the good. There is no questioning Bray’s strength as a writer. The dialogue is always excellent, the descriptions of Victorian London are spot on. She includes many historical details that keep the atmosphere rich and poignant, and she’s mastered writing her action set pieces, something that was perhaps lacking in the first book. Further, the stakes have been raised in this book. Gemma, Felicity, and Anne have experienced real hardship with the death of their friend Pippa. And Circe, Gemma’s mother’s murderer, seems to circle ever nearer throughout this story. I enjoyed the expansion of both the “real world” setting, moving the story out from the walls of Spence Academy and into the social workings of London itself, as well as that of the Realms. We get to move beyond the perfectly lovely Garden and begin to see that now that the magic is released, things aren’t quite right in this magical land. Further, they might not have been right even before when the Order was in power.

So, there you go. This is a long book (a mark against it, really, since I think Bray could have used an editor to help trim this book up in places), but the writing and general plotting of the story are strong and got me through it. And considering my list of complaints to come, getting through it in a timely manner is actually a big mark in…something’s favor.

First off, the characters. As I said, there were some serious happenings in the first book. Pippa died. Felicity (and Anne in following her) did some truly awful things in the pursuit of power. It was made clear that the Realms weren’t all pretty flowers and magical powers with no strings attached. With this all, characters needed to grow! Other than mourning Pippa’s death, the threesome of girls quickly falls into the exact same pattern of behavior they exhibited in the first book as if they had learned absolutely nothing.

Felicity continues to bully Gemma into making bad decisions with the Realms, behaving as if it is still the free-for-all they had first supposed it to be, as if she hadn’t sacrificed a deer bare-handed in the previous book only to come this close to becoming a dark denizen herself. She routinely advises Gemma to ignore warnings and plays hot and cold with her friendship. You’d think that after coming through together what was experienced in the first book there would be a real foundation of friendship. Instead, we continue to see examples of a “mean girl” who only cares for Gemma when it is convenient. This doesn’t speak well to Gemma’s character either for tolerating such one-sided friendships (Anne has similar issues, siding with Felicity in all of her worst moments and never giving anything back to Gemma to justify Gemma’s continued loyalty).

Further, about half way through the story Bray introduces a dark backstory for Felicity with regards to her family. I have mixed feelings on this as I do think in many ways it was handled very well. But it was also used as a magic wand to somehow excuse Felicity’s behavior, which I don’t agree with. Further, after showing up briefly, there are many implications that are never fully addressed, which leaves the whole situation feeling all too close to a “plot convenience” which doesn’t sit well at all.

Anne has changed not at all. If anything, her character’s uselessness is doubled down upon. She has gained no bravery, no sense of self worth, and has actually actively stepped back into bad behaviors (self harm) that much time was spent on overcoming in the first book. Why was our time wasted then if she wasn’t going to improve at all here? And in this book, I can’t think of a single time when she truly aided the group. She was nothing more than dead weight throughout the entire story, and has now been given almost every negative stereotype a character like her can have, and gained none of the the strengths one would expect from a character moving beyond and through these set backs. Halfway through the book she ends up in a dangerous situation, and I was openly rooting for her to just be written out of the book. Alas, no.

And Gemma. The problems with Gemma aren’t even character problems. For the most part, I still very much like her as a leading lady. Unlike the other two, she has more sides to her that fully flesh her out and make her character arc interesting to follow. And while she does seem to grow throughout this book, there is the same problem from the previous to this: she has learned nothing! She naively believes everything that is told to her by every single person, even when she has explicitly been warned against this. Told not to trust anyone in the Realms? She immediately trusts EVERY SINGLE PERSON SHE MEETS. Oh, here’s a girl who was in the Order before and has made herself “mad” to avoid Cerci? Let’s NOT believe anything she has to say. It’s endlessly frustrating.

What’s more, the story opens with the reader witnessing a scene that explicitly makes it clear that a few characters are set against Gemma from the start. But then we have to go through an entire book watching her naively work with these characters. So not only is Gemma herself frustratingly naive to follow, making all of the wrong decisions for no good reason, but the reader is already set ahead of her, knowing more than she does from the start and yet still stuck in her ignorance. For any canny reader, the “twists” could be spotted a mile away which just makes it all the more frustrating watching Gemma and Co. struggle on. When she finally does realize things, there isn’t any breath of relief. You’re already 100 pages past that stage and simply want to smack her for not getting it earlier. Her following morose is all the more infuriating.

And lastly, the third member of the love triangle (you know it’s bad when the presence of a love triangle hasn’t even made the cut for my list of things to vent about) is essentially a date rapist and THIS IS NEVER ADDRESSED. He tries to get Gemma away from the others at a ball, and when this doesn’t work, he gets her drunk on absinthe, and then lures her to a remote part of the house and begins seducing her. They’re only interrupted by one of her visions which scares him out of it. And then the whole thing is forgotten, other than Gemma being embarrassed by her own behavior mid-vision!

There is zero discussion about this man’s intentions, the wrongness of his drugging her and attempting to seduce her, or anything. He continues to be a romantic interest! For a book, and author, that makes a big deal about talking about feminist and societal issues, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept waiting for the admonitions to role in, for Gemma to realize what a scumbag this guy was, for anything! There was nothing. It was left as if nothing had happened, he had done no wrong, and Gemma’s only concern was the worry that her own behavior would put him off. There’s no excuse for this. For young women reading this book, they are left with a scene like this presented as ordinary, ok, and not worth revisiting other than potentially shaming the girl caught up in it for getting too drunk and putting off the potential husband.

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So, it’s clear I had a lot of feelings about this book. For as many complaints as I had, I do feel compelled to finish the series, if only to see where Bray ends up leaving her characters in the end. Again, a lot happened in this book and you’d expect some character growth to come out of it, for us to have new versions of the same characters in the next book. But I had that expectation for this book and was utterly disappointed, so I’m not holding out hope. My prediction is that they will all behave the same exact way for way too many pages. I guess we’ll find out.

Rating 4: Complete lack of character growth and some very irresponsible messages leave this book as a disappointment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rebel Angels” is included on the Goodreads lists “Victorian YA Novels” and “Private School Paranormals.”

Find “Rebel Angels” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

 

 

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: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

31450908Book: “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Review: Last year’s “Every Heart a Doorway” , aYA fantasy novella by Seanan McGuire, completely took me by surprise. It asks the important, but rarely asked, question: what happens when these special, chosen children return from their adventures in other worlds? In that book, we met Jack and Jill, twin girls who had spent years in their own magical land. Like many others at the school, they each had their own struggles adjusting to life back in this reality. Here, we have their back story. And, while I still love the creativity of this series, the fact that I knew the end story for these two did affect my perception of this story. It’s purely a personal problem, however, so all in all, this is a strong second outing for this series.

Like most children who wander into strange worlds, Jack and Jill don’t quite fit into the reality that they were born, too. Their mother, Serena (oh no!) makes a princess out of Jill, and their father, Chester, attempts to turn Jack into the son he wished he had. Growing up within these strict definitions that were chosen for them, it’s no surprise that when they discover a doorway in their attic, they choose to walk forward. The world that awaits is filled with monsters, science, and chaos. But perhaps most frightening and thrilling of all: choices. For two girls who have been told who they are since birth, this new found ability to decide offers temptations and dangers.

The greatest strength of “Every Heart a Doorway” was the clear-eyed approach it took on childhood. It’s all too easy to wrap up childhood in fluffy dreams of nostalgia, to wave away the worries and pains of childhood as nothing more than immaturity. This strength comes to the forefront in this book, a story that is even darker than the original novella. Jack and Jill’s childhood until age 12 in “reality” is one full of struggle against the various constraints of gender. I greatly appreciated the fact that both definitions, the “princess” and the “tomboy” are shown equally for the damages they can inflict. They both demonize a type of behavior in girls in lieu of presenting the “one true way.” It is made clear that the strictness of both and the lack of flexibility in the definition of “girlhood” is the root of the problem with either perception.

I also greatly enjoyed the time spent in the fantasy world, obviously. This world is dark, scary, and the choices presented to the girls have real consequences. As we saw in the first book, both girls are changed by their time in this world, and it was fascinating watching them each slowly develop into the characters we are familiar with from the first book.

This, however, was also where I found myself struggling with this book. I like darkness in my fantasy novels, but I do struggle to fully enjoy stories that end on this same dark note. I think the fact that I knew the events that took place in “Every Heart a Doorway” before reading this colored my perception of certain things and prevented me from fully committing to both of the main characters. I felt like I was almost keeping the story at a distance, because I knew not to get too attached. This is clearly a very personal flaw with the story and one that’s completely tied up in my own reading experience, so take it with a million grains of salt. Because, even saying that, knowing the end result also kept me interested as the girls transformed into the characters I knew, as I said before.

This was a solid second outing in this novella series. I believe there is a third, “Beneath the Sugar Sky,” in line to be published this coming January, and I will definitely be at the front of the line to get my hands on it! Definitely check this book out if you’re a fan of dark fantasy, especially of the classic monster variety!

Rating 7: An excellent dark, fantasy story, both benefiting and, for me, suffering from the fact that we had already been introduced to these characters in the first book in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

 “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” is a new book so isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on  “The Monster Mash”  and “Best Gothic Books.”

Find “Down Among the Sticks and Bones” at your library using WorldCat!