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 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 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.

 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.

The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

The world of Renthia is a terrifying place.  Beautiful, but terrifying.  Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again.  Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.

So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative.  The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it.  She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.

The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder.  This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm.  The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.

Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read.  It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard.  The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).