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Tag: N.K. Jemisin

Hugo Award Roundup: Short Story Nominees

The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s category is Best Short Story.

The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin

The cover for “The City Born Great”. Illustration by Richie Pope.

Cities are full of life. In Jemisin’s story, if they grow large and powerful enough, they’ll become living beings themselves. But the birth of a city isn’t easy, and there are dark beings out there interested in devouring this new life. It’s up to the city’s midwife to usher them into the world safely and prevent the forces of evil from winning out. However, New York’s midwife, our unnamed narrator, is homeless, hungry, and skeptical. But it’s up to him to deliver this baby, sing its song, and fight the unnamed Enemy that wants to suck it dry.

One of Jemisin’s hallmarks is the use of protagonists that deliberately test the boundaries of readers’ sympathies. Essun from The Fifth Season is a great example. The narrator of “The City Born Great” – a flippant, pragmatic homeless person – is another. The climax, where New York actually comes alive, is great. But I think the story would have been stronger if the final scene were cut entirely. Otherwise, the ending was too tidy.

Read “The City Born Great” for free online.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

Two sisters grow up with the power to see the snaking, infinite paths of the future, and twist fate to their own ends. When one sister leaves for the city, she regrets the effect her choice has on the other left behind. But some things are inevitable, and when she tries to return to save her sister, her attempts always fall short.

Wong’s story is interesting and the prose is delicate, but it somehow feels unfinished, overall. The story kept hinting that the girls’ parents were meant to be looming and significant, overbearing, but in the end they’re non-entities. I never understood why either sister felt so constrained by living with them.

Read “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” for free online.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander

I reviewed this story last November, and my opinion of it still stands. It’s perfect, snarly and angry.

Read “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” for free online.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar

Amira is a princess whose beauty encourages the advances of uncountable numbers of men, including her father. To keep herself and her kingdom safe, she willingly sits in exile on a throne atop a glass mountain, awaiting the one man who can climb it and prove being worthy of her hand. Tabitha is a woman who loved and married a shapeshifting bear-man. However, after his abuse raises her mother’s suspicions, she does an act that breaks his trust in her. She must walk the countryside, carry his bear-skin and wear through seven pairs of iron shoes as penance before she can return.

But when Amira and Tabitha meet – Tabitha climbs the glass mountain in the hope that such a magical surface will wear through the soles of her shoes even faster – neither of them believe that the other deserves such harsh treatment. It’s not Amira’s fault that men always lust after her, Tabitha says; nor does Amira believe it’s Tabitha’s fault that her husband beat her. So the two forge a life together on their own.

I love the quality of El-Mohtar’s prose, and “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a fine example of how delicate and crystalline and sweet her writing can be. But on a thematic level, while I recognize it’s a response to a number of misogynistic tropes found in traditional fairytales, the story left me lukewarm. It feels like the theme of “it’s not a woman’s fault if a man is a controlling asshole” is really hammered in. It’s a fine message in and of itself, but it’s not that subtle.

Read “Seasons of Glass and Iron” for free online.

That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn

The cover for “That Game We Played During the War”. Illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Major Valk Larn is a war hero; like all people of Gaant, he’s a telepath. Calla Belan is a field nurse; like all people of Enith, she isn’t. Gaant and Enith have been fighting over the same piece of land for years. However, despite the Gaantish advantage of telepathy, the Enithi have managed to fight them to a standstill and negotiate a peace treaty. Now that the peace is holding, Valk and Calla are free to rekindle their unusual friendship over a game of chess.

As soon as I read “That Game We Played During the War”, I knew that it was special, so I’m delighted to see it as a nominee. I’m especially happy considering that out of all the short stories on ballot, this one displays the least amount of literary pyrotechnics. No snarky narrator, no perilous acrobatics of prose. Just two people, a chess board, and a grand, if not particularly original, metaphor.

Calla and Valk are both given full, real personalities despite little information in the text about their personal likes, dislikes, and fears. The effect is as if I’m viewing a simple yet evocative pencil sketch – a lot of information is deftly packed into as few lines as possible. Most of all, I appreciate the story’s genuine sense of kindness and goodwill. These are characters who have learned to see each other as people rather than enemies.

Read “That Game We Played During the War” for free online.

An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright

I didn’t bother to read this one. I know enough to steer clear of the bullshit that Castalia House publishes.

The Broken Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

broken_kingdoms_coverTitle: The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance Trilogy books 2 & 3)
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Format: Print
Rating: 4/5 for The Broken Kingdoms; 3/5 for The Kingdom of Gods
How I got these books: As Christmas presents (because my in-laws are awesome)

Long-time readers of the blog know that I read and reviewed N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season last year, and it completely bowled me over. However, before I read that, I read and reviewed her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms 2 years ago. So when I got The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods for Christmas a few months ago, it just seemed like the natural thing to do to read them this year.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ended with Yeine Darre, heir to the Arameri throne, ascending into godhood and becoming the second incarnation of Enefa, goddess of dawns and dusks, balance, and life. Upon her ascension, she and Nahadoth, the nightlord, punished the third god of their triumvirate by making him human and stripping him of the majority of his power. The goal was to make Itempas, lord of light and order, understand the privations of human life so that he could eventually “earn” his powers back.

At the beginning of The Broken Kingdoms, it’s been about a decade since Yeine’s ascension, and a young blind artist named Oree Shoth takes pity on a broken man she encounters, inviting him in for shelter and companionship. The thing is, even though she’s blind, she can see him. He gives off amazing bursts of light that only she can see within her head. Obviously, this newcomer — whom she dubs “Shiny” — must be more than he appears.

However, things in the capital city of Shadow are going haywire. Godlings have re-entered the mortal plane, and while their antics are fun to encounter (and also Oree’s bread and butter, since she sells handmade objects of worship), something completely new and unexpected has started happening: Godlings are dying.

Godlings can’t die. Or at least, they shouldn’t be able to. So who is doing this? And why? Oree’s ability to see magical power may be the key to answering both questions.

Of course, just because questions are answered doesn’t mean there won’t be new ones in the future.

kingdom_of_gods_coverThe Kingdom of Gods takes place about a century after the end of The Broken Kingdoms. And in this third book, Jemisin takes her interest in liminal beings, in narrators who stand on the thresholds between different levels of power, and turns it on its head. Where Yeine was a woman who became a god and Oree was a woman with mixed mortal/immortal heritage, the narrator of The Kingdom of Gods is a mirror image of these two: Sieh is the god of childhood and immaturity, and he’s gradually becoming human. Over the course of the novel, his descent into mortality intensifies, because if there’s one thing that’s antithetical to the living, eternal embodiment of childhood, it’s the reality of growing old and frail.

The more I’ve read of Jemisin, the more I see what sort of tactics she uses to corral her characters towards the endpoint of the narrative. Characters may rapidly change their outlooks and behaviours, but those changes are rooted in a strong sense of ego and self-preservation. Things turn on a dime, become chaotic, become messy, become angry, become contradictory — but that’s because she takes great pains to portray the motivations and differing psychologies of the people in the story, and deftly interrogates exactly where everyone’s rough edges grind up against everyone else’s.

That said, I felt a real sense of diminishing returns between the first and the second book, and especially between the second and the third. As the stakes increasingly become larger, with first kingdoms, then gods, then entire universes at risk, the effect on me as a reader got duller and duller. It felt like I was being smothered in Epic — okay, so the god of vengeance tries to manipulate the entire universe by making a bajillion magially-infused masks explode while people are wearing them so he can reap their lifeforce, gain even more power, and thus overthrow the Big Three. Lots of things are exploding. Ho hum.

While the Inheritance trilogy overall is inventive in how it investigates concepts like colonialism, imperialism, power structures, entitlement, identity, and more, the last two books didn’t hit as hard to me as the first one did. Worst of all, the slow unspooling of backstory — like what caused Itempas to want to kill Enefa in the first place, or the fact that Enefa raped her own son at some point — felt anticlimactic. Itempas decided to kill Enefa because he was feeling jealous and left out when she and Nahadoth were spending time together. Before that, Enefa raped Sieh, her own son, because she was feeling lonely over being left out of Nahadoth and Itempas spending time together. In the end, it felt like the biggest issues at play — the reason why the whole universe risks flickering out like a candle — because three omnipotent beings just don’t have the rationality and emotional intelligence to, y’know, just talk things out.

Either that, or one could snarkily assume that the entire point of the series is that threesomes just don’t work. I dunno.

Maybe the real point Jemisin is trying to make is that gods have the same frailties as humans, that no matter how much power and control you have, you can still fuck up? That’s a more realistic assessment, but still — you’d think that the gods who created the universe the entire story is being told in could get their shit together.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: Orogene Lives Matter

The Fifth Season by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Fifth Season
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed it from the library

Essun lives in a shattered world. The Stillness is a land of earthquakes and volcanoes and tectonic calamities that darken the skies and blight the land for years. In fact, such a catastrophe has just been unleashed, a great red rift snaking out from the capital, Yumenes, into the heart of the continent. The society of the Stillness has adapted to these changes and built up a body of lore to withstand such calamities — known as fifth seasons — when they happen.

But Essun’s world has shattered for a different reason: her son has just died. What’s worse, he died at the hands of her beloved husband, who has run away from town with their daughter in tow. But the awful truth of it all is this: her son was killed because he was an orogene, like her — a person born with the ability to control the energy of the planet itself. In a world of such unstable composition and geology, orogenes are feared, shunned, and manipulated in equal measure. And now Essun must travel across the cracked and trembling earth to find her daughter, Nassun, before Nassun meets the same fate as her brother.

Essun is only one lens through which the lives of orogenes are examined in such a (literally) unstable world. There’s also Syenite, an orogene trained by the Fulcrum, the government body that finds, fosters, and trains orogenes from a young age so they can be “prove their use” to the state. Such proof includes preventing and neutralizing tectonic events or doing grunt work like cleaning out coral-encrusted harbours. Life under the Fulcrum is harsh, but at least orogenes there have a purpose.

Of course, the fact that Fulcrum-trained orogenes live a circumscribed life, where survival can be ensured only through continued compliance and conformity, is something that those in power conveniently never say out loud. Bits of lore about the world of the Stillness, including excerpts from major religious and political texts, are included at the end of each chapter. Here’s a charming example:

Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.

— Erlsset, twenty-third emperor of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, in the thirteenth year of the season of Teeth. Comment recorded at a party, shortly before the founding of the Fulcrum.

Syenite’s slow realization that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll always be viewed as a thing, a threat, forms a major backbone of the book.

The third lens through which we learn about the world of The Fifth Season is Damaya, a young girl who has recently manifested orogene ability. She’s been entrusted to a Guardian, a person who is responsible for monitoring orogenes and bringing rogue ones to heel. Travelling to the Fulcrum under the supervision of her guardian is fun, at first, but Damaya is taught about her place in the world quickly:

“I’m not sorry for the pain I’ve caused you, little one, because you needed to learn the lesson of that pain. What do you understand about me now?”

She shakes her head. Then she makes herself answer, because of course that is the point. “I have to do what you say or you’ll hurt me.”


“And,” she adds, “you’ll hurt me even when I do obey. If you think you should.”

“Yes.” She can actually hear his smile. He nudges a stray braid away from her cheek, letting the backs of his fingers brush her skin. “What I do is not random, Damaya. It’s about control. Give me no reason to doubt yours, and I will never hurt you again. Do you understand?”

Questions about control, humanity, and how we Other people by simultaneously fearing and subjugating them run all throughout The Fifth Season. This is a book that I honestly don’t think could have been published before 2015. It’s too raw, too deep, too pulsing and red and full of uncomfortable truths about systems of power and oppression to have been saleable within the fantasy publishing market 5 or even 3 or 2 years ago — there just weren’t enough open ears and hearts willing to hear the message this book truly conveys.

(Hell, I count myself among that audience who probably wouldn’t have been ready. I like to think of myself as inclusive and liberal and respectful of others, but I’ve led a fairly privileged life. I have blinders on just like the next nominally progressive but politically inert white/straight/hetero/cis/ablebodied person.)

But in a world where Michael Brown and Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride and Freddie Gray and so many others die every day because we refuse to acknowledge how destructive our own national myths and and history and lore are, this book is vital. Necessary, even, because sometimes we need to read about a made-up world to help us realize how untrue our own world is in so many ways.

Damn, this is a book you need to read. Seriously. The politics of The Fifth Season are there on the surface, openly defiant, daring you to look away. And I can’t. And we shouldn’t. (And, of course, it fills me with pleasure to think how the Sad Puppy contingent would go absolutely apoplectic when reading a book like this. Because SF books shouldn’t be political, dammit, unless they adhere to some Golden Age fascist/militaristic wet dream! Obviously.)

What’s more, Jemisin is willing to take risks in her narration — gorgeous risks that pay off once every moving tectonic plate of story melts together and you see just how precisely the seams have been laid. Essun’s story is told in second person, while Syenite’s and Damaya’s are told in third person. However, taken together, they form a thematic whole.

And the ending, where the three stories converge and the past actions of one character echo the current circumstances of another, contain revelations that are, literally, earth-shattering.

In short: fuck yes, I will nominate this for a Hugo.

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