The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

fifthseasonThis book took me all over the place. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or admired it or was utterly bored or wanted to read the next book in the series right now.

In a volatile, volcanic world, civilization is destroyed every so often by cataclysmic geological events (Seasons). Thrust into this world are three different characters vying with the various conflicts that mark living on an unstable planet with specific prejudices against them in particular. The characters are linked, though initially it is a mystery just how. I guessed the reason about halfway through the novel: it’s a pretty cool twist! The plot is based around these three, and my enjoyment of the novel varied so greatly between them, that I will go through them one by one.

Damaya is a child taken from her family for developing superpowers. In this world, some people are born as orogenes, which means they have devastating seismic abilities to literally move mountains or burst volcanoes. Naturally they’re feared and persecuted, and when children are found (and not killed in ignorance), they’re taken off to a wizard boarding school called the Fulcrum.

The reason I couldn’t wait to be done these chapters is simple: I’ve had it with magic schools.

They’ve suffused popular fantasy novels and media for too long. I feel like there’s a generation of creators who are around my age or usually a little older who grew up with the same media I did. Before Harry Potter, we had The Wheel of Time, with its Aes Sedai and magic reduced to science that can be learned in a classroom, greatly influencing all of epic fantasy. Even the rise of immersive, narrative video games have left their mark. I’m thinking Bioware games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age for sure. Not only does The Fifth Season’s magic users and subsequent prejudice have much in common with Dragon Age mages, tonally it is similar. Perhaps because Bioware was in turn greatly influenced by Joss Whedon. Maybe this is all an oversimplification but pop-Sci-fi/fantasy media of all stripes are feeling tightly entwined.

Another reason magic schools and I don’t mesh is that a) I went to a commuter college and b) I always hated school. Harkening back to college life is a key nostalgia element for the many people I know that speak of their college experience with such fondness (and certainly it would have been cooler if they were learning magic). If not nostalgia, I imagine there is still some appeal for those that actually enjoy classroom learning. 

The next point-of-view character is You, a woman named Essun. It’s written in the second person, following the account of a woman who found her small son murdered at the hands of her husband. This plot immediately grabbed my interest — distinct narrative point of view, jarringly awful event — and then promptly lost it. For starters, it’s glacially slow and Essun seems to barely cover any ground compared to the other two. Certainly the husband plot isn’t resolved.

Jemisin’s narrative style is something I’m going to call blogversation because I as far as I know there is no useful term for it (yet). What I mean is that the narrator is present and speaking directly to the reader in accessible, conversational language that reminds me of blogs. Many sentences start with “Well,” and end with “, actually” or “, anyway”. It means you can end up with prose that looks like this:


Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.”

It’s not awful exactly, but I’m not a big fan. I feel like it puts a layer between me and the characters because the modern author writing in such modern language makes me start thinking about N. K. Jemisin writing that to me and not the actual character. This happens throughout the entire book but it’s especially bad with Essun. There’s a point very early where she ends up killing a whole bunch of people and the following chapter begins with:

“You’re so tired. Takes a lot out of you, killing so many people.”

There’s a sort of flippancy in that sentence that just kills it for me. If you can speak like that about killing people, how much does killing people actually matter?

Another major gripe I have with the You of Essun’s chapters is that, despite the intent of being so personally linked to this character, she spends near zero time contemplating what I figure nearly anyone would if they found their husband killed their child. Namely: how could he do that? We know nothing about husband Jija by the end of this book.

This brings me to Syenite. A college-age student/prisoner of the Fulcrum, Syenite is sent on a routine mission to help a coastal town, but the whole operation is just a front to be forced to have sex with and be impregnated by a senior orogene. 1 + 1 orogene = 1 more orogene for society to collectively control. 

I like this. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a good ‘ole back-and-forth, twist-and-turn adventure story. It still has some of the prose and thematic problems of the other two characters, but I forgave them easily because I was invested in the story. Even the secondary characters are superior to the other arcs.

I feel like the part of the novel I actually enjoyed is just a footnote at the end of this review here, but as they say, it’s easier to point out what you don’t like than what you do. Also, while Syenite is only one of three characters, it feels like her chapters are about half the book. So it’s at least as much good as bad or lukewarm.

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (Worldbreaker #2)

EmpireAscendant-144dpiThis is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. I reviewed part one, The Mirror Empire, last year. Reading my own review prior to starting part two turned out to be a boon. The world is complicated, the dramatis personae lengthy. According to my Kindle, the glossary at the end is 5% of the total mass of the book. Even after the refresher, I was a bit overwhelmed by the plethora of similar-sounding names for a good while.

The world is under assault from a relentless army from a mirror-world, an army comprised of phantom versions of the people of this one. They’ve already sacked an entire continent and are on their way to conquer the other two main countries. A hodgepodge group of characters all over the world stand to oppose them (and just as frequently: oppose each other). The pace, the headlong speed of the action, the scale continues to be Hurley’s strong suit. So many world(s)-spanning epic fantasies become lost in their own details and sputter on following millions of new threads introduced each book. The Worldbreaker Saga is speedy, despite the massive scope. Events happen quickly. The plot is spinning at a nice and compelling rate, while still remaining (mostly) comprehensible. When new threads are introduced, old ones are severed. Character bloat isn’t an issue when a writer is balancing the scales by brutally murdering many of the old ones (seriously brutal, not faux-brutal — trust me).

I complained of the world not feeling weird enough in The Mirror Empire, especially given how strange it was supposed to be. Empire Ascendant is more satisfactory in that regard, the strange attributes (killer plants, moon-based magic powers, world hopping) are better realized and many of the old tropes discarded. When we can base a major set piece on an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tea party of disparate characters sitting down for a banquet right in between two different armies protected by magic air bubbles, and the scene works, we’re going places. I’m still a little nonplussed by the main continent/character set where the action is taking place (Dhai) but there was so much going on all over the damn place, that I wasn’t too displeased.

There’s a theme that runs through the novel about ‘monsters’. To fight a monster, you must become one. Gaze long into the abyss… etc. While it is of course credible that being exposed to constant violence would provoke violent tendencies in the person (or people) attempting to survive, it does not mean they would need to become monsters. I always balk when a character in a narrative thinks something along the lines of “If I do this [possibly bad thing], then I’ll be just as bad as them.” I am not sold by Empire Ascendant’s version of this; the villains have launched a sustained genocidal rampage on such an unimaginable scale, that the main characters killing a few people (in self defense) just cannot compare. Nor am I sold on the theme beyond the scope of the novel — that real life evil requires evil in return. It seems to be like Hurley is reaching for some of the moral heft of Oakley Hall’s Warlock but not quite grasping it.

Another reason maybe I’m not sold on it is because I do not find the characters to be truly believable people. I saw this as a detractor in the first book (and still feel like the universe has some strange-but-nostalgic affinity to video games) but I’ve come to terms with the characters being less realistic depictions of people and more like pulpy archetypes who speak modern english. I’ve read Kameron Hurley’s blog and she’s confessed her love of 80s action heroes and I can see the influence in Empire Ascendant. Several scenes in the book could be reinvented as death metal album covers. Picture a grim anti-hero bleeding out, reclining on a mountain of corpses, flipping off the camera. That’s honestly not that far from a description of one character’s demise in this book.

Empire Ascendant does everything the first book did well better, and minimizes on the things the first book did poorly. Not much more you can ask for from a sequel. I’m invested in the plot. It’s refreshing to feel like this is actually going to wrap up in three books. The board is set for book 3 and I look forward to the conclusion.