Top 5 Wednesday: 7/26/17

Series That Got Better

This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes.  Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.

118368  Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.

 

1. Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader.  Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion.  It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better.  They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.

This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series.  The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.

The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book.  She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds.  Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.

2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful.  In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever.  It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.

I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.

3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde

This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City.  In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.

Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization.  This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.

4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin

This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book.  It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief.  The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.

The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book.  Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her.  And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long.  Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.

5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds

For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author.  This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys.  The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression.  Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again.  I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.

I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series.  I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.

Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin

            One of the best things about Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy is that you don’t necessarily have to read it as a trilogy.  Each novel is great even as a standalone.  That said, Kingdom of Gods is a welcome wrap-up to everything set in motion in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms.  As far as third books in trilogies go, it’s a satisfying ending, to be sure.  It’s the one that the reader fears yet nevertheless knows must happen, though it does feel a bit as if Jemisin wanted to have it both ways—the ending that must happen, and the uplifting “the end is just the beginning” ending—but who can blame her? 

            Previously Jemisin used two humans—special though they were—to narrate the stories in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms.  The final novel, though, is told from the point of view of Sieh.  Sieh is a godling, but the oldest of the godlings and first child of the Three.  Sieh, for all that it is impossible, is dying and he must figure out why.  His journey is intertwined with the lives of Shahar and Dekarta Arameri, children of the current Arameri head and ruler of the world, and takes place well after Oree’s story in The Broken Kingoms.  Arameri power has been waning steadily, but now someone is actively trying to kill Arameri.  Jemisin weaves many more elements of mystery into the plot of Kingdom of Gods than she had in previous installments, and it may take some readers a greater leap of faith to stick with the story, as we are kept in suspense till very nearly the end.  Some readers may find this off-putting, but others who enjoy the not-knowing will find the experience of figuring things out, testing their conjectures against what is slowly revealed, quite satisfying.

The Inheritance trilogy is in many ways a significant break from much of fantasy and speculative fiction, which traditionally features static religious and philosophical systems in which the people struggle to live or adapt to the world in which they find themselves.  In Jemisin’s world, even the gods can find themselves powerless to stop events or effect change.  One might say the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms takes part in an extreme Newtonian worldview, in which every action, even that of a god, has an equal reaction which can’t always be predicted and can’t always be counteracted.  It’s a fascinating and—to some readers—and extremely satisfying part of the story she’s weaving.  Other readers, as a quick look at GoodReads, might break their teeth on the sharp edges of Jemisin’s philosophy.  But even if you find yourself reeling from the strangeness of her world, I still recommend that any reader who enjoys a challenge try out the Inheritance trilogy.

Kingdom of Gods is a story of change—necessary change, desired change, even painful and deadly change.  Part of Sieh’s nature is change and if anyone is adapted to live in this new world it would be him, except for a terrible secret that is killing him, and long forgotten but inextricably wrapped up in Shahar and Deka’s struggles to find their place in this new world of gods and religions where their family’s government is creeping ever closer to insignificance. 

            Jemisin has written a piercing critique of modern society and government, examining the ways in which totalitarian rule is justified by offering up the millions saved at the price of the few harmed or enslaved or curtailed, the many freedoms given at the cost of some of those we our world consider the most inalienable.  Throughout this series I was impressed at how well thought it was, how it continually plumbs depths that I hadn’t before considered, and I was no less so with Kingdom of Gods.  Anyone looking for deep existential fiction with an engrossing story need look no further.

            Getting to characterization and prose, though: Sieh’s predicament, and his narration, rambles on a bit and tends to grow whiny which is a product, no doubt, of his nature, however the choice to make him the narrator of this novel was a conscious one on Jemisin’s part.  It doesn’t overly detract from the story but does make the reader a little impatient for him to get to the point.  Jemisin’s depiction of Shahar, and her ability to fully develop her character despite the descriptions being from Sieh’s point of view, are an accomplishment in themselves.  Though Shahar—and even Deka—seem one-dimensional at first, they build in complexity and become fully distinguished from one another.  As Jemisin has written each novel in the series with a different character as narrator, and found ways to flesh out each story despite her narrators’ unreliability, she has truly proven her abilities as a first-class writer.  I recommend this series with no reservations.

            Readers looking for engaging fantasy with heavy world-building with enjoy this novel and series, as will those who want diversity characters and points of view.  Readers interested in novels that really interrogate what makes their characters tick, that want thought-provoking reading will also enjoy this novel and series.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The divine power that sustained the ruling family of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has been shattered.  But more importantly, the gods have been released.  After the pristine white palace of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ Sky, the reader is plunged into the frenetic world of Sky in Shadow, the city beneath the spreading branches of the great World Tree that now supports the palace Sky.

It’s difficult not to talk about sequels in the context of their predecessors, but The Broken Kingdoms being so vastly different in tone and subject, while still being in the same world as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, makes it even more so.  Rather than characters being the centering force and plot-director for the series, it is the world itself- the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, how it changes, relates to its inhabitants, and responds to its gods—that makes this a series and not a loose collection of stories.

Like the gods and godlings who feel the passage of years like eyeblinks, Jemisin is free with the passage of time in The Broken Kingdoms.  After the claustrophobic feeling of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where every event fits into a precise ballet of carefully timed moments–because Yeine only had so long to live–The Broken Kingdoms feels leisurely by comparison.  Oree is a Maroneh who has come to Sky-in-Shadow to escape a troubling past—and because she can see magic.  A story-teller and artist, Oree is also the believable, though not always reliable, narrator of The Broken Kingdoms.  Though she faithfully reports what she senses and knows about characters and events, the more we find out, the more it becomes apparent that Oree is holding back a great truth.  What that truth is becomes the driving force of the novel.  Jemisin has established an effective distance between her authorial presence and Oree’s narrative voice, primarily because Oree has lived in Shadow for ten years and consequently has enough knowledge to be believable when she gives readers details about people, places, and events.

Jemisin’s world-building and writing style shine in The Broken Kingdoms, which I believe is the best of the Inheritance Trilogy.  The mark of a writer who has mastered their craft is often that the reader doesn’t notice the writing itself, but experiences it as a vehicle for whatever the writer is trying to accomplish.  This is not to say that one never notices instances of beautiful language use, only that the reader is not slowed or held back by he words on the page.  Jemisin’s writing comes across as natural.  Her characters are individuals, memorable, and aware of themselves and their world.

Oree’s storytelling, as I mentioned, is quite separate from what Jemisin has to say.  Oree’s style is digressive and conversational.  She addresses the reader directly.  At times this can be distracting, though as I mentioned there are great truths afoot that Oree is holding back.  Oree’s story and life are all her own, but Jemisin uses the ways that she talks about people, her musings on the world, to develop the ideas, themes, and world of her story.  As to the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms itself, Jemisin’s tone, thorugh the narrative voice of Oree, is one of a vertigo-inducing sense of endless possibilities where all things visual are palpable and vice versa.  After thousands of years of fearing gods, the people of Shadow now live among them, and for Oree the association is even closer.  Because she can see magic, Oree has a closer understanding of gods and their power, and the more we learn about them through her, the more we find there is to learn.

Godhood and immortality are two of the main themes of The Broken Kingdoms, an the World Tree under which all in Shadow live is a primary expression of that.  Though much has changed because of and around it, much more remains the same—as have the gods and mortals among whom they choose to live.  Yes, the gods are free and the people have many more freedoms than under the rule of Itempas, but still all are constricted by the immutable laws of the universe.  Mortals must still live and die, and gods derive their power from their natures.  But Oree’s blindness has become a sort of freedom.  Though she still understands and is subject to the laws of the mortal world, she is also constrained by another set of rules—rules for surviving in a world designed for the sighted.  Jemisin portrays Oree’s blindness with sensitivity, but it is still a plot device, a way of making Oree possessed of the ability to see beyond what the average person does.

 And there is also her relationship with Shiny, the most important relationship in the story.  Jemisin needed more than an ordinary person.  But allowing Oree to tell her story makes up in part for using her to advance the greater narrative.  Oree’s understanding of her role, her ultimate agency in her own life allow the reader to stay engaged until the end.  And for those not satisfied with the final chapters of the novel, there’s another one to pick up!