The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin

Although the Season has progressed as most Seasons do–with the subtle variations wrought by how and where it began–everyone in the Stillness is slowly realizing, after the events of The Fifth Season, that, somehow, this Season is different.  This Season may be the last Season. But how it will end, no one can say.

For Essun, it means finding a way to end all the Seasons, to let no one else die as she has watched so many in her life pass away from her.  The tiny coincidences that bring old acquaintances back together continue in this follow-up novel, with just enough little discoveries to hint at what is really happening, but plenty of mystery still to be solved.  Essun’s wanderings have ceased, in Castrima, but there is a new threat on the horizon–another Comm has decided to expand its territory and Castrima is in its path.

Essun has to learn how to work with people who know she is an orogene but don’t see the Fulcrum as the solution to orogenes, and she must find a way to solve the problem that Alabaster has brought back into her life–the question of the obelisks and what they can really do.  Meanwhile, far to the south, Nassun and her father have miraculously escaped the worst of the quake and are making their way to a place Essun’s Jija thinks will somehow save Nassun.

Some of the most satisfying revelations in this novel surround the Stone Eaters and their history, as well as who is really telling this story, and why.  Essun pushes closer and closer to the mystery until, finally, she reaches the solution.  But of course Jemisin saves the biggest twist until the very end.  Again, Jemisin’s prose stands out, blending storytelling and stark objectivity in a way that only she can.  The space she allows for her characters to feel emotion–anger, sorrow, despair, and occasional joy–pull the reader in and make the story real, while her ability to twist, plot, and plan continue to impress.  This is the kind of writing we should all aspire to.

Being the middle novel in a trilogy, The Obelisk Gate is where the magic happens–literally and figuratively.  Though not as much happens, fewer personal histories are revealed, it is the pivot point for the story, refocusing the reader exquisitely from the ground, the bodies inhabiting and surviving and dying on it, to the sky in parallel with the people of the Stillness.  Why is such a big question in this series, often asked in anger or frustration, and is, in its way, the greatest metaphor for the series.  Why look at the sky when the danger is here, in the ground?  Why care about that issue when there is this issue right here in front of us?  We ask these questions all the time, and the novel, perhaps, is working through that with us.

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An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story.  I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.

An Unkindness of Magicians  is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible.  Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City.  The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer.  Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.

Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows.  Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it.  Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews.  Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much.  The question is, who will crack first.

Though  the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events.  There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment.  Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read.  One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.

The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered.  This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing.  That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness?  I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

There are many kinds of escape.  Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable.  Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul.  There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more.  From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts.  Just like the allegory The CaveAn Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar.  Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.

Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred.  All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power.  There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.

In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins.  Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying.  Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.

With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.

The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, by S.L. Huang

In a modern interpretation of the epistolary novel, S.L. Huang’s 2016 novella, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist examines one of the oldest unknowns, the vast depths of our own ocean system.  Drawing from myths of mermaids as old as sea travel, this story is one of first contact, politics, and, in its way, love.

Told from the perspective of Cadence Mbella by some  unknown writer, it is made up of recordings of her own subvocalizations during the time that she attempts contact with a recently discovered species of intelligent sea creatures who leave so deep in the ocean that they can’t even see, but communicate and sense in other ways.  But something goes wrong when a militarized group attempts to circumvent her research and instead kidnap one of the so-called mermaids.

This sets off a series of events that eventually leads Dr. Mbella back to the sea, to discover, as deeply as a human can, the extent of the Atargati way of life.

Despite its short length, the novella manages to present the reader with a lot to consider; from its in medias res beginning to its heartbreaking and eye-opening conclusion, the language Huang uses to tell the story is some of the most evocative in the contemporary SF canon.  This is one of those stories that redefines what it is to be human, what science is, and how we think about myth and culture.

The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden

The world ends with fireworks and a pop concert, as we’ve come to expect.  South Africa, and particularly the southeast coast city of  Port Elizabeth has tried to move beyond Apartheid, beyond the poverty of global south post-colonialism, but time has a long memory and more short-lived humans are often destined to repeat history, despite all good intentions otherwise.  Because the problem with good intentions is the secrets every person hides, and for some, those secrets can kill.

The Prey of Gods, while it has an apocalyptic feel, is a novel of new beginnings, wonder, and family.  All the main characters have both something to hide, and must work to move past whatever secrets keep them in a place of darkness or fear.  There are, of course, villains, but even they are driven by a history written when the world was still young, and can’t help themselves.  This is where the novel excels, in fact, taking a mythologized history and literalizing it to create a speculative future.  The gods lived, died, and are now reborn.  What humanity does in response what drives the story.

The large cast of characters in this novel makes it difficult to pin down the driving plot, however it is Muzi’s desire to live a life outside the shadow of his larger-than-life grandfater, Stoker’s desire to live a life free of lies of identity and personality, and Nomvula’s desire to have a mother who is more than a shell of a person, to have someone in her life who really cares about her, that sets the world on fire and pushes the story to its inevitable conclusion.  Throw in a not-so-young-anymore pop diva who remade herself in the image of a woman who never knows fear or pain, a goddess of death determined to take over the world, and a drug dealer with a penchant for the new, and you’ve got the kind of volatile situation that leads to the birth of artificial intelligence and a new species of sentient robots, as well as genetically engineered extinct animal hybrids on the loose.

The Prey of Gods is a buzz-saw of a novel, because it manages to squeeze so much into so few pages, and although the second third of the story drags just a little with the necessity of pushing so many character viewpoints into a short period of chaotic time, there’s plenty still to chew on when the smoke clears.  Overall this novel is a great debut and positive outlook for the future of speculative fiction.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Every fairy tale has a grain of truth in it.  In Vaselisa Petrovna’s case, everything true about the world has a hint of the magical about it.  Whether it is as she sits at the knee of her nurse Dunya as a small child, listening to tales of Father Frost and the foolish people who try to get the better of him, or as a teenager when she unwittingly meets the spirits of the great forest and learns to speak to them.  Though the world is a dangerous place, Vaselisa finds, it is a manageable danger.  Until something changes.

While there are many very self-conscious Cinderella reinterpretations, The Bear and the Nightingale‘s reliance–not on the Germanic lore many readers are familiar with–on Russian and Slavic tradition, its total immersion in a history, a place, a culture so entwined with the land that gave it rise, makes this more than just one tale, and very much an allegory for an entire world, which is how the folk tradition can really shine.

The competing forces of invasion from the east and south lend urgency to a tale that otherwise could have been much more leisurely, and thus have a lot less at stake.  The Khan’s horde is an everpresent threat for Peotr, who is considered a rich boyar,  but at the same time the push of Christianity and its influence on the southern city of Moscow, still little more than a jumped up trading post but striving for imperial greatness, draws a narrow line for him and his people to walk.  Add in the demands of nature, the shifting threats of seasons and snows, and it would take very little to tip this community over the edge.

In the sub-arctic climates of eastern Russia, it is little surprise that Frost would be personified, but it is Arden’s use of the small spirits–those who inhabit the house and stable, the spirits of wood and water–that really bring a feeling of place to the story, and establish the stakes.  It is the risk not to a great many people if the horde are not satisfied with the year’s tribute, but the risk to Vaselisa, her brothers, her nurse, her father, and those who have lived in the village for generations if the tenuous balance between human and nature spirit is not kept.  But in a time of uncertainty, alliances and beliefs begin to shift, and what used to be lore comes to be seen as harmful superstition.

Vaselisa’s strength will be tested, but also her ability to reconcile her desires and her duty, and her ability to work with her people, instead of isolating herself.  For lovers of folklore inspired fantasy with well-drawn characters, The Bear and the Nightingale is  sure bet.

An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir

In the Martial Empire, freedom is the price you pay for security.  Whether it’s knowing your social cast will always have the same privileges, or the surety of poverty in the Scholar’s quarter, the one thing the Martials always provide is guaranteed destiny.  On the surface, this novel could fall into the “just another tale of empire” category, but as the story goes on Tahir builds out both the mythology and history of the Scholar and Martial civilizations to provide depth and conflict to both the Scholar struggle for freedom and the Martial fears of overturned dynasty.

An Ember in the Ashes hinges on the existence of a school of pseudo-peacekeepers, called Blackcliff, from which the mysterious and terrifying Masks graduate.  These masks are highly trained military personnel, who also possess somewhat magical abilities that seem to exist primarily to terrify the populace.  Laia is orphaned by a Mask raid on her Scholar home, in which her grandparents are killed and her brother taken.  She joins a Scholar rebel group and infiltrates Blackcliff on a mission to gain the rebel’s trust and get them to help get her brother out.

Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart, from a meta perspective.  While everything Laia does in order to save her brother is realistic, even logical, the ways in which the narrative is constructed leaves somewhat to be desired.  Elias, one of the few Masks to both unoppositionally disagree with everything the Masks stand for and to survey all the way to graduation (dissenters and the disloyal are weeded out mercilessly), is all too typical of the “slave to fate” protagonists who hates the world but is too scared to really do anything about it.  The fact that he is one of the point of view characters, and so the reader spends a lot of time in his head, doesn’t help, as he often comes off as whiny and privileged.

The other major problem is the way in which women are handled in this novel.  In short, they are isolated.  There are three major woman characters, with a few supporting women characters.  The three major characters–Laia, Helene, and the Commandant–exist as antagonists to each other, and provide motivation for Elias.  Laia starts out free but subjugated and becomes a slave for whom he feels sympathy and a symbol of what is wrong with the Empire.  Helene is his best friend and for some reason the only woman chosen to attend Blackcliff–the narrative gives a one-sentence explanation that one woman per generation is selected.  She’s the perfect student, completely loyal to Elias, and therefore hates any other woman close to him.

Finally, the Commandant, Elias’ mother–again, the only woman of her generation–who is the only identifiable villain of the novel.  Other characters exist who commit evil by degrees, but she’s the one made only of cruelty and malice, who enjoys torturing people.  She made a name for herself hunting down rebels, and goes through slaves like cheap gloves, but somehow has managed to keep two kitchen slaves around for a few years, one of whom befriends Laia.  But this friendship also really only exists to create tension and advance the plot.  Otherwise women don’t really interact in this novel.  They are all exceptional in their own way and all are wound up in a fate storyline controlled by a group of oracles whose motives are not clear, so not only are they isolated, their agency is somewhat curtailed by the fact that they exist to carry out the plans of an outside force.

So, while Ember in the Ashes had some character issues that need to be resolved in the following books, it was a compelling look at the way empire and colonialism perpetuates itself in numerous ways, effectively enslaving even those who nominally benefit from it.  A good companion series might be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.