N. K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

HOLY SHIT you guys! Before I get into the details, let me shout at you that THIS WAS THE BEST DAMN BOOK I’VE READ IN A LONG TIME. It’s twisty and full of depth and it’s got diverse characters doing awesome shit and living through hell and still going on and also that world is a messed up place and I loved every page of it. Okay, time to take a breath and do that all over, with punctuation.

fifth seasonTHE FIFTH SEASON
by N. K. Jemisin

Published by: Orbit, 2015
Ebook: 500 pages
Series: The Broken Earth #1
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

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Where to start with a book like this? There are three protagonists whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. One of these character’s stories is told entirely in second person and that works beautifully – it took me half to book to even notice it. Essun, who has found her little son dead, killed by her own husband, and her older daughter kidnapped by the same, sets out to hunt them down. Save her child, kill her husband. Working through her grief and dealing with a just-begun Season, it’s not exactly fun to read about her, but my god, is it riveting! Essun is also an orogene in hiding, a person who can feel – sess – and manipulate the earth and its heat, a talent that is used for stopping earthquakes in this hostile world.

The second protagonist is Damaya, a little girl with the gift of orogeny, who is taken to the Fulcrum, a sort of school for orogenes. Although this school is also a prison, and while orogenes (or roggas, the derogatory term) are trained to use their power without hurting others, they are also slaves to the Sanze Empire, doing their bidding and always watched by their Guardians. I loved how some of Damaya’s story read like a dystopian boarding school tale, a departure from the otherwise completely bleak world. Don’t get me wrong, Damaya’s life isn’t fun either, but I enjoyed the shift in tone, and it shows off Jemisin’s amazing skill all the more.

The third, and my favorite, character to follow, was Syenite. She is Fulcrum-trained and has earned four rings in their ranking system. She is sent out with Alabaster to do an orogene’s job and also to breed, in order to produce a highly skilled new orogene baby for the Fulcrum to train. You see, while orogenes at the Fulcrum aren’t hunted down and killed, they are still a far cry from free. Syenite and Alabaster’s relationship was a pure joy to watch. Syen is a stubborn, incredibly likable character. Her ambition, her hunger for more, her dislike of ten-ringer Alabaster and the fact that they have to have sex without really wanting to – every little bit about her made me love her.

Since I’m keeping this spoiler-free, instead of going on about the plot (which is amazeballs!), let me talk a little about the world-building. Which, if possible, is even more amazeballs. I seriously don’t think I’ve read anything this original and internally consistent in a long time. There are plot twists (all of which caught me by surprise and made me shout WHAT THE FUUUUUCK), but even without them, exploring this strange world managed to have me sitting there with my mouth open, trying to wrap my brain around all this.

The Stillness is a big continent and the fact that its population ise used to Seasons – people have go-bags for when the shit hits the fan again – tells you that it’s a fairly unpleasant place to live. Orogenes are, in my mind, magic-users or X-Men or whatever, but instead of being revered or celebrated as superheroes, they are treated as lower class citizens or even less, especially when untrained. But then there are also the obelisks, hexagonal gigantic shapes just floating around. Nobody knows their use or why they’re here. Apart from the actual geographic and tectonic set-up of this strange world, I also found its people highly intriguing. There is a clear class-divide, with orogenes being seen as less valuable than stills (people without orogeny), but even among the stills, there are rich people and poor people. And even within orogenes, there is a pecking order. Let’s not forget the Guardians, which, to me, are like a species of their own with their own set of powers…

I could go on and on about this world and my theories about it, but I really, really don’t want to spoil a single thing for you guys. Something I can say is that, although the three main characters’ story lines are very different, there are clues in one story for mysteries in another. You could read each tale on its own and still get a great story out of it, but putting the puzzle pieces together, they create a bigger whole. It gives you these little moments of “Ha, so that’s how that works” when you remember something from a previous chapter that fits into what the current character is going through. This also means that The Fifth Season is a book that demands concentration. It’s not a book to read on your commute or in  noisy rooms.

I have said many things but I haven’t even mentioned the relationships yet. Not only are there moments of pure beauty between groups of people, there is love in so many facets, despite the bleak world with its many apocalypses. Whether it’s the love between sexual partners, between the people of an entire village, between fellow travelers on the road, between a child and their mother… Jemisin manages to show that even a world as broken as this still has a place for the personal, for enjoyment and sex. Without spoiling, Syen is part of one of the best relationships I have ever read about where the partners complement and challenge each other, arouse and hold each other, push one another to become better people. It’s a thing of beauty.

And, just to round things up, I’d like to say a few words about the prose. Jemisin has been brilliant from the start. Her Inheritance Trilogy already showed that we have a truly original author here, one who defies all the fantasy tropes and comes up with new stuff. In my opinion, she has also always been a fantastic writer, craft-wise. But in The Fifth Season, she truly comes into her own. The tonal shifts between chapters, the way descriptions differ depending on whose point of view we’re reading, the clever tricks she plays on her readers – all of this shows that even great authors still have room to grow and Jemisin did. The Fifth Season is proof of that.

To be honest, many questions are left unanswered at the end of The Fifth Season but  if anything, this made me even more eager to read the next book. This volume is so dense and so full of details that putting any more plot or world-building into it would have been a mistake. As it is, it is an absolutely perfect book with mind-blowing twists and brain-wrecking ideas. I urge everyone to grab a copy and take a week off work. This book deserves to be devoured and enjoyed, soaked up and savoured. It also deserves all the awards!

MY RATING: 9,5/10 – Oh my god, so perfect!

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Second opinions:

 

Joe Abercrombie – The Blade Itself

“Late to the party” doesn’t really cover it this time, does it? I remember when everybody was reading and recommending the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I went out and got the first volume. Then it sat there, on my shelf, sad and forgotten. Until I kept coming across interviews with the author on Sword and Laser, Tea and Jeopardy, and other places on the internet – that gave me the necessary kick in the butt to do it. I finally read the infamous Lord Grimdark’s first novel.

blade itselfTHE BLADE ITSELF
by Joe Abercrombie

Published by: Gollancz, 2006
Paperback: 517 pages
Series: The First Law #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Logen plunged thorugh the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head.

The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.” Homer

Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body – not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers.
Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men.
And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up in a hole in the snow with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all – ideally by running away from it. But as he’s discovering, old habits die really, really hard indeed…
…especially when Bayaz gets involved. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Glotka, Jezal and Logen a whole lot more difficult…

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His twitter handle is the name of an entire subgenre of fantasy: (Lord) grimdark! The definition, if I understand correctly, is dark fantasy where blood and violence are an everyday occurence, where things that can go wrong invariably will go wrong, where nobody is completely good but some people may indeed be completely evil. From what I have read on the internet, this seems to include a lot of female characters getting mistreated, assaulted, and raped. I expected gratuitous violence, just to show how few fucks the hero gives. But prejudice is a tricky thing. If your expectations can ruin a perfectly good book because it has been overly hyped, so can negative prejudice make you enjoy a book more – if only because it does not deliver all the bad things you came to expect. I believe this is what happened with The Blade Itself and me.

Someone described the characters to me in three (and-a-half) words: Everyone’s an asshole!
I was all the more surprised when I found myself caring for these people. Logen Ninefingers is obviously a brutal badass fighter who will kill you without so much as a shrug. But he has lost his wife and children, barely escaped death only to find out that his closest friends have also died. His resignation is understandable. It doesn’t exactly make him endearing but I was intrigued enough to want to see what he would do to pick himself up and create the semblance of a life.

The same goes for Inquisitor Glokta, an asshole by definition of his profession. He is a torturer who really, really doesn’t mind watching others suffer, even former friends. But he is also plagued by the pain in his crippled leg, and the fact that he can only eat broth due to an unfortunate loss of teeth made me at least pity him a little… Don’t get me wrong. I hated him. But I kind of loved to hate him, in a guilty pleasure kind of way.

Jezal, the third major character, is an arrogant, vain moron who only becomes a little likable when he falls in love with a girl. He’s still an asshole, though. Then there was this one character I suspected may be an actual good guy. Major West, Jezal’s friend and superior, has come to a small measure of glory from the lower classes. He does not look down upon those socially inferior to him (having been there himself), he respects other people and honestly wants to do good. But then I read on and… wait. Yes, yes. He is also an asshole.

It was all the more impressive how invested I became in these despicable people’s lives. The plot isn’t riveting and, for quite a while, I had no idea where it was going to go. Epic warfare? Magic wreaking havoc? A quest for vengeance? The Union has just come out of a war and already a new one is knocking on the door. Logen’s home in the Northlands is overrun with terrible creatures named Shanka who pose an additional threat to the people. Then the First of the Magi, Bayaz, shows up and he seems to have an agenda all his own. Between Jezal’s embarrassing attempts at romance, Glokta’s terrible job, and Logen’s resigned following-along-someone-else’s-quest, I couldn’t stop reading. And that’s what makes this a good book for me. Sure, there is violence and blood and not exactly a lot of female characters (all of whom are abused in one way or another, btw).

first law cover detail

The world building isn’t groundbreaking, but at least it doesn’t get in the way of the story by use of info dumps and bad exposition. What we have here is our average Medieval Europe setting with a hint of magic, but mostly warfare and politics. That said, the style and themes change drastically with the setting of each particular character. While Logen’s meanderings often tread in the path of danger and, thus, violent fights, Jezal and West’s storylines almost read like a fantasy of manners at times. These two live in the capital city where the nobility will judge every wrong step you take and make you pay for it dearly. I loved the social aspects of the world building, in all their gritty splendor.

But with that stereotypical epic fantasy world come its many failures. This is only book one in a trilogy but I very mouch doubt I will get to see LGBTQ characters, women who haven’t been through terrible abuse, men who aren’t assholes, or POC characters in the next two volumes. I’m not saying every book should have “one of everything” just for the sake of it, but if you write in a subgenre where the characters and their actions are supposed to reflect the reality of our world, then failing to include a major part of the population is a big issue. I’ve been reading fairly diversely this year, so I felt the absence of multi-layered female characters even more crassly.

I have little to say about the writing style. It is neither adventurous nor experimental, simply a window through which we see the story unfold. The fight scenes could have been shorter, but Abercrombie’s characters spring to life off the page and make you care, despite being horrible people. Plus, anyone who can pull off snarky dialogue that doesn’t sound idiotic gets a couple of brownie points. All in all, I would say, this is a very well written debut novel that leaves me with high hopes for what comes after. Joe Abercrombie strikes me as the kind of author who visibly develops as a writer with every book he writes. I can’t wait to find out for myself.

Despite my caveats, I still enjoyed the book and want to find out what happens next. This was neither as dark as I had worried (after American Psycho, nothing really is…) nor was it as bad as I feared. The mood for epic adventures has definitely struck me; and despiting disliking every single one of them, I kind of look forward to seeing what these characters are up to in the next book.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  – Very good.

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The First Law Trilogy:

first law trilogy

  • The Blade Itself
  • Before They Are Hanged
  • Last Argument of Kings

Review: Jim Butcher – Furies of Calderon

I really shouldn’t start new series before I’ve finished the ones I’m reading. But since the NPR Top 100 titles have not truly disappointed me yet, I couldn’t wait to read more books off this list.

FURIES OF CALDERON
by Jim Butcher

Published: Orbit, 2009 (2004)
ISBN: 1841497444
Pages: 600
Copy: audiobook
Series: Codex Alera #1

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: Amara rode atop the swaying back of the towering old gargant bull, going over the plan in her head.

In the realm of Alera, where people bond with the furies – elementals of earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal – fifteen-year-old Tavi struggles with his lack of furycrafting. But when his homeland erupts in chaos – when rebels war with loyalists and furies clash with furies – Tavi’s simple courage will turn the tides of war.

There are a lot of good things to be said about this story. But there is an almost equal amount of problems I had with it. The plot is very generic epic fantasy – including your avarage farm boy becoming the most important person in the kingdom, an impending war, and of course magic – and that was, in my opinion, a shame. But Jim Butcher has some great ideas and managed to shine with gripping writing. This was a book with many, many pages, and they begged to be turned, and turned quickly.

We follow a diverse cast of characters throughout their adventures. Tavi, our farmboy, was merely likable in the beginning but he really grew on my once he was separated from others and had to fight for his own survival. His cool-headedness and compassion make him a perfect protagonist. Amara, the Cursor who is trying to stop the war by unraveling a conspiracy, was initially my favorite character but she didn’t develop all that much, and her budding romance – fantastic though it was to read – was not enough to keep me interested in her story line.

With shifting character perspectives, we follow differend subplots, and not all of these were great. While I could have read about the Marat and their culture for another 500 pages, I really didn’t see much point in aunt Isana’s story, or her prominence in the book for that matter. While the pacing of each story is well done and we are occasionally left with terrible cliffhangers, some of the action scenes felt forced – like action for action’s sake.

What I really enjoyed was the magic system. The people of Alera can control furies of a certain element which helps them not only in everyday life (make a cosy fire at home, for instance) but is also used for healing or manipulation purposes. There is a lot of room for more detail in this world and its magic and I can’t wait to see more of it.

With an almost mediocre rating, you might ask why I seem so eager to continue the series. Because the book is damn well written, the audio narration was very well done, and the ending of this novel gives me an idea of what’s to come. And if I’m correct (and the title of book 2 suggests so), then the second volume will contain one of my biggest buzz words when it comes to books.

If you like epic fantasy, with magic and war, battles and conspiracies, characters to root for, and some thrilling action, then this is for you. Personally, it left me wanting more and made me very curious about Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files.

THE GOOD: Good action scenes, the Marat culture is extremely interesting, and I even liked the tiny bit of romance.

THE BAD: Starts out fairly generic, some characters remain bland (while others shine), and a bit of tightening wouldn’t have hurt.

THE VERDICT: It wasn’t a perfect book but it set up the world of Alera well and, personally, I want more of it. Recommended to people who don’t mind taking a long time diving into an even longer series.

RATING: 6,5/10  Quite good with a lot of potential for more.

The Codex Alera Series:

  1. Furies of Calderon
  2. Academ’s Fury
  3. Cursor’s Fury
  4. Captain’s Fury
  5. Princep’s Fury
  6. First Lord’s Fury

Related posts:

Tad Williams – Tailchaser’s Song

My favorite Tad Williams story is still the Otherland quartet. Of the three (in paperback: four) volumes in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, I’ve read the first two and left it at that. When he wrote the latter, Tad Williams was clearly still in his Tolkien phase. While this is a “cat book” you can still (or already) see the heavy influences of that most famous of fellowships’ journey.

TAILCHASER’S SONG
by Tad Williams

Published: Orbit, 1999 (1985)
ISBN:185723846X
Pages: 290
Copy: paperback

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The hour of Unfolding Dark had begun, and the rooftop where Tailchaser lay was smothered in shadow.

Fifteen years ago, a young author surprised and enchanted readers with his first novel-the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a courageous tom cat in a world of whiskery heroes and villains, of feline gods and strange, furless creatures called M’an. The book was Tailchaser’s Song, the author was Tad Williams. The legend was born. Meet Fritti Tailchaser, a ginger tom of rare courage and curiosity, a born survivor in a world of heroes and villains… And join him on a fantastic quest – all the way to cat hell and beyond.

Fritti Tailchaser, an orange cat with a white star-shaped patch on his forehead, is easy to love. As cats do, he likes to sleep, prowl and hunt, and play with his childhood friend Hushpad. When Hushpad disappears mysteriously and rumors are spread about a strange danger taking cats from their homes, Tailchaser sets out to find his friend. Accompanied by the kitten Pouncequick – who is adorable as all kittens are – and some unlikely friends he picks up on the way, Tailchaser shall take on his quest and find the truth about what’s haunting the cats’ realm.

We are introduced to the characters slowly and carefully. (c) Animetroplolis (http://studioanimetropolis.com/)In finest Tolkien fashion, Tad Williams shows us a world that we can imagine as real from the point of view of the cats that inhabit it. The first half of this novel is very much traveling and world-building, a lot of setting up plot strings and introducing new characters. It felt like reading the Hobbit with cats (and without Gandalf). However, once you hit the middle portion of the book, Williams’ original ideas shine through and in a certain, very scary passage, he won me over again.

Unfortunately, the ending was too deus ex machina for my taste and came rather abruptly. While I enjoyed the darker middle passage (literally dark, they are underground a lot of the time), once the big evil is thwarted (come on, that’s not a spoiler) things go straight back to being your avarage Tolkien rip-off. What’s more, there is quite a large chunk of story still to get through after the big “mystery” is resolved – and to any experienced fantasy reader this mystery is really clear from the beginning.

This is a well-written book, just nothing I haven’t read a hundred times before. I suppose I should be more lenient because it was published in the eighties and fantasy hadn’t developed then as much as it has now, what with gritty and dark being the norm and authors trying to steer away from the pseudo-medieval European setting. But I am not reading this book in the eighties, I am reading it now and it is very dated in its style and plot. I did care about the characters, especially Pounce, but I would have preferred more character development and interaction instead of Tolkienesque descriptions of the forests and rivers. Looking back at the plot, I can’t honestly say that this was a story worth telling. I believe Tad Williams simply had to get over this phase and happened to write a good, publishable book in the process. Just not a great one.

(c) Animetropolis (http://studioanimetropolis.com/)If Memory, Sorrow & Thorn are Tad Williams’ hommage to The Lord of the Rings, then Tailchaser’s Song is his Hobbit. Our cat heroes spend a lot of the book traveling, meeting other cat characters who sing songs or tell stories and old legends. There is mythology shimmering under the surface of every page and the reader can tell that Tad Williams put a lot of effort into making the cat universe believable and consistent with the world as we see it. But I would not recommend this to everyone. Young people who have just discovered books or fantasy or Tolkien will probably love this animal twist on a well-known tale. Those of us who have read too much within the genre to be satisified with a knock-off, don’t waste your time on a merely okay book.

THE GOOD: Well-written, lovely characters and some interesting cat lore.
THE BAD: Deus ex machina ending, basically the Hobbit with cats (and no dragon, sorry).
THE VERDICT: Read it if you can’t get enough of Tolkien’s style. If you’re into more recent fantasy novels, give this one a pass. It’s not a bad novel at all, just not really worth your time compared to the great things the genre has to offer nowadays.

RATING: 6/10  Quite okay.

All of the above said, I am very excited about the upcoming animated movie. The concept art is gorgeous and I think Tad Williams deserves finally having one of his stories adapted for the screen. Another version of a story is also always an opportunity to do it better. In this case, I hope for more bonding between our cat characters and maybe some completely new ideas just for the movie.