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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The Immortal Architects, by Paige Orwin

Let’s get the basics out of the way first, shall we?  The Immortal Architects is the second in a series by Paige Orwin, the first of which was called The Interminables, and is an alt-world fantasy about wizards who destroy the world in order to defeat an evil immortal from the Middle East who is trying to destroy the world.  The main characters are Edmund Templeton and Istvan Czernin who,with help from a few others attempt to keep Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, ancient Scythian warrior and magician, from rising and once again trying to destroy the world and all in her path.

It’s a workmanlike bit of plot and characterization, all the bits and bobs in the right places to give the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what they want, and with few enough plot holes that everyone arrives in the right order in order to make the final climax happen.  Points for interesting concepts including Edmund’s attempt to attain immortality by stealing time from others and Istvan’s existence as a ghost who literally embodies World War I, and the unlikeliness of the two coming together as allies.

A few years ago I might have glowed about this novel, because it is pretty inventive and imaginative, and has just enough of the unexplained to be interesting without becoming bogged down in explanations, but these days, I can’t help but read it a little differently.

This is a novel about white guilt.

That might seem like an odd thing to say in a fantasy novel.  Let me explain.

This is a novel about a white man born at the beginning of the 20th century, and his best friend, another white man born at the end of the 19th century, and their struggles to come to terms with a world that has changed in ways they can’t keep up with, which is where much of the pathos of the novel comes from: these two, both immortal in their own way, are the wrecking ball and not the flying superhero come to save the day.  One is afraid to die, the other literally can’t because he’s a revenant, and they are the whom this story is about.

The novel contains what, on the surface, is a diverse cast of characters.  As Edmund himself states in one of his guilt-saturated internal tirades, the head of the Twelfth Hour–the wizard cabal that ostensibly runs what’s left of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.–is a brown woman.  One of the other supporting characters is Grace Wu, a woman engineer with the ability to channel energy.  And, perhaps the most important, then there is Kyra, a young black woman able to create storms, who may be the secret to stopping Shokat Anoushak from coming back to ravage the world once again.

Shokat Anoushak is an ancient immortal, one who only wants to destroy, and also happens to come from the Middle East.  Kyra is a black woman from Rochester, NY, who is Shattered–someone damaged by the magical forces Shokat Anoushak unleashed and now, in the aftermath of the wizard war, dangerous to those around her because of the powers she wields–and also trans.  Barrio Libertad are the community at odds with the Twelfth Hour–coded white–who have a lot of power and are run by, you guessed it, a latino named Diego Espinoza.

All the characters mentioned are antagonistic to Edmund and Istvan in some way, and all of them are othered racially and ethnically.  It’s a white world, the story keeps screaming at the reader, and everyone else keeps taunting our two white male protagonists with their non-whiteness.

Edmund and Istvan are our point of view characters.  Edmund experiences a lot of feelings about things he does, things that happen, things he sees, things other people do.  He locks up Kyra with magical chains, all the while telling himself–in his head, in his feels–that he isn’t a racist and that everyone who will say he is is just being mean and not understanding his intentions.  At a point where Barrio Libertad obtain custody of Kyra, a random black man–never seen before or again after–is trotted out as a spokesperson and leader of Barrio Libertad, solely in order to point out to Edmund–and to the reader–that he is white and she is black, and to reference the history of racial inequality in the United States, which makes Edmund feel bad again.

Edmund repeatedly makes reference to his being “not a racist,” even when not confronted.  Remember, his is the reader’s point of view.   The author of this story made these narrative decisions, and decided to create the unnecessary and, frankly, unrealistic scene of a post-magical-war society living in the corpse of a previously animated city-sized monster who feels it necessary to call out Edmund for the racism of locking up a kid, instead of the hundred other dumb things he did in relation to that event.  That was black tokenism, and did nothing to move the narrative, other than to give Edmund something else to feel guilty about, which the reader then had to experience and is, presumably, expected to sympathize over.

Now let’s move to the other thorny subject.  Kyra is not just a teenaged girl, she’s a trans girl, for all intents and purposes.  When everyone meets her, in the middle of a killer storm she’s created, they all assume she’s a boy.  Both Edmund and Istvan misgender her repeatedly, and it takes a huge crisis in which Edmund and Istvan somehow get their priorities straight and decide that however misguided she is, it’s more convenient to just give her what she wants and use the pronouns she’s chosen.  From the first time Kyra asserts that she is a girl, the reader must slog through another 25% of the novel before Edmund and Istvan finally give in and reliably use her pronouns.  Istvan even goes on a tear, at Kyra, about how unrealistic it is of her to just expect people to get her and not treat her according to the natural order he’s used to.  He–a revenant of the great war capable of literally tearing people apart–screams at her about how she’ll get hurt if she insists on such irrational behavior.

It’s disturbing.  It’s even more disturbing that Edmund and Istvan are the only ones who call each other out for their behavior–unreliable as that is and usually only in relation to ways that they inconvenience each other–and no other part of the narrative really interrogates how they behave and shines a light on how problematic it is.  The narrative provides no other reliable mirror for their whiteness.

Kyra has memories of a happy time–all Shattered are given such memories in order to make them docile and useful to Shokat Anoushak–and Istvan’s referencing that time, in which she was free and happy to make decisions like what her pronouns were, also puts a date to when it ocurred–specifically the beginning of the 21st century, from about 2008 to when the war ended in 2020.  2012 was when the real destruction began, but Kyra has memories of a whole life, and in 2020 is about 15.  Read as a whole, the novel is implying that whatever happy reality Kyra remembers–our actual reality from 2008 on, which also coincides with things like Barack Obama being elected president and eventually passing the ACA–is not only not real, but not realistic, and that anyone who thinks they have a right to expect that kind of life or happiness deserves to get hurt.

I get it: the novel isn’t a manifesto.  And yet, writers bring all kinds of things to the table without realizing it.  Edmund’s arc isn’t really an arc at all.  It’s a straight line from the uncomfortable reality of the way he steals time from others to stay alive, to the way he attempts to lock away his mistakes so he won’t have to be confronted by them, to accepting banishment at the end of the story in order to escape the blame from another disaster he’s caused.

On the other side of the coin, Istvan can’t free himself of his bigotry, which is especially problematized by the fact that not only is he a gay man who was forced to live a lie at the turn of the 20th century, but that he repeatedly displays a hatred, a revulsion for that part of himself, and worries that Edmund will not want to be around him if he ever finds out Istvan loves him.  Sexuality and gender are difficult issues in this novel, to say the least.  For the first half of the story Kyra’s being trans is used as evidence that she is mentally  unstable, then she is punished for the rest of the story by being outcast, not fully trusted, and eventually physically attacked for not conforming to everyone else’s expectations of her.  The reader only ever gets glimpses into her real psyche through the lens of Edmund and Istvan’s gazes.

And through it all the reader is exposed to Edmund’s guilt, and his petty anger at being held accountable for the situation he’d created.  Even after 98% of the story, Edmund throws a tantrum over everything being taken away from him–after he tried to sell everyone out to Shokat Anoushak in exchange for the real secret to immortality–and includes being called racist in the list of wrongs perpetrated against him.  In a world where white accountability is sorely lacking, when being called racist is viewed as being worse than actually being racist, this story of a white man’s guilt is sadly accurate, and yet the way that it is presented is, again, not given the broader context against which to understand Edmund’s and Istvan’s actions as problematic.

For comparison, Mishell Baker’s novel Borderline, about a young woman with borderline personal disorder, has a white woman as its protagonist, and is told by her.  She repeatedly commits racist or ableist actions, sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, sometimes only in her head, and when in a good frame of mind to recognize it, feels guilty.  The difference is the ways in which Baker constructs the scenes.  Either the young woman is called out for behaviors that display overt racism or are racist microaggressions, or she makes a distinction in her own narration between the racism of her actions and the guilt she feels at perpetrating racist actions.  White people can and should feel guilty for being racist, but the story is not the guilty feelings, it’s the racism.  In The Immortal Architects, the reader is subject only to Edmunds experience of his guilt, not his realization of how he may be perpetrating racism and how his actions can be harmful to those around him.

That’s why this novel is a white guilt story and not a redemption narrative, or hero’s journey.  It’s a manifesto for the status quo that should be recommended with caution.

It Takes Two: Mind Bending Maths

Thanks to Renay and Ana at Fangirl Happy Hour podcast for reminding me how awesome one of the books I’m going to talk about today is!  I’ve been listening to back episodes of this podcast–you should check them out, you don’t have to start at the beginning like I did–and they were reviewing Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, the first book in what is going to be a trilogy of the kind of science fiction I love: specifically, the kind with science you don’t have to understand completely, you just have to believe in the story really hard and let the characters move you along.

The second book, which is also part of a series, is Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang, which is also the first book in a series, this one called Russell’s Attic, named for the main character in the series, Cass Russell.  Both Lee and Huang are very smart people and the SF field is incredibly lucky to have them contributing to the canon right now.

These two books/series are not just about math and how it is used by them main characters to accomplish their goals.  They are about memory and coming to terms with the past in unique ways.  In Ninefox Gambit, Kel Cheris has a troubled history with her chosen faction, the militarized Kel who use a brainwashing technique called formation instinct to extract strict obedience from their members, and ends up with the revenant of a disgraced, and possibly insane, 400 year old general inhabiting her head in order to defeat a faction of heretics who are threatening her alt-universe civilization.

Cass Russell, by contrast, is a retrieval specialist working out of contemporary Los Angeles, who uses her brilliant ability with math and physics to perform what appear to be death-defying and all-bu-impossible feats in order to deliver on her assignments.  The problem is, though, that Cass Russell has a blank spot in her memory as big as most of her life, and issues with morality that she can’t quite explain.  She also has some questionable friends and finds it difficult to trust new people or maintain personal relationships.

Besides the deep mysteries of both series, their other strength lies in the diversity of characterization that both authors employ.  Neither series falls into the trap of scarcity or homogeneity that often troubles big complex works in the science fiction genre.  Cass’s world is full of people of color, diverse genders, and people with disabilities.  The world of Kel Cheris’ hexarchate empire is necessarily diverse, being comprised of possibly thousands of worlds and having been around for countless generations.  We meet people of diverse genders, orientations, and appearances, and women and men share equally in roles of power–perhaps the most important aspect, as power is the name of the game in the hexarchate.

What I love the most about these novels is how heartfelt and genuine they are.  Both Lee an Huang are Asian American, writing the kinds of worlds they want to see (minus, one presumes, the murder and brainwashing), using their strengths as scientists to come up with characters and stories we haven’t seen before, and really just writing plots that consume the reader from beginning to end.  These are the kinds of books I want to see in my science fiction canon.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s
a party, sweetheart, and everyone’s invited.  On every planet in the sky humanity teems—watching silent
films, drinking drinks with fancy names, and living off the fruits of nine
planets plus all their moons in the art-deco alternate world Valente has
created, where humanity shot itself to the stars before even the 20th
century came splashing onto the calendar. 
And through it all, all the people on all the worlds are united by
film.  In the world of Percival
Unck, you can be famous not just on one planet, but on all of them.

Radiance is a story of stories.  Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin,
disappeared in the 1950’s on a shoot on Venus, only no one knows what happened
or how.  Through found footage, old
classified reports, and diaries, the novel attempts to recreate Severin’s life,
parallel to Percival’s attempt to give his only daughter a good ending.  If he could just tell the right story,
she might be able to rest—somewhere—knowing how much he loved her.  And Percival might be able to rest,
too.

Valente’s
novel is both a beautiful homage to a medium that has shaped the stories we
tell ourselves as a culture and people, and a nod to the classic science fiction
stories that first went to the moon and beyond.  Radiance proves
that not all stories have to be real, true, or even believable to have
meaning.  Switching seamlessly
between character points of view and storytelling style, Valente immerses the
reader in the tumultuous and trendy world of inter-planetary colonies, strange
creatures native to the furthest planets in the solar system, and the stories
that unite them all—from the stars of the silver screen to the serialized radio
broadcasts that eventually catch up even to all planets, even if they go behind
the sun for 70-odd years.

Readers
nostalgic for the open-ended feeling of early space travel science fiction will
find themselves enthralled by the way Radiance
dances in the light of all the imaginative stories that have come before
it.  Those looking for a novel that
is less run-of-the-mill than your average science fiction will love Valente’s
talent for telling a complicated and multi-faceted story.  Anyone who has ever dreamed of going to
the stars, or becoming a star, should check out Radiance.