Making a Fresh Start

Guys, it’s been so long since I looked at this blog that WordPress forgot my login credentials! It’s only been six weeks, but it does feel like a lifetime, partly because I’ve been avoiding writing anything. I’ve been writing about every book I’ve read for about nine years in this space, and so when I see the forty books sitting unreviewed in my Goodreads list it gives me a tiny panic attack. And then all of you lovely people are like, “Hey, where’d you go, tell me about ALL THE BOOKS” and I am like “I want to, but.”

So I’m making a change around here and taking a page out of my very own book from RIPs past. I’ll be stopping in here every week or two with an update on things I’m reading, watching, listening to, playing, and generally thinking about. If there’s a book that I feel very strongly about, you might see a full-length review here and there. But not this week!

What have I been up to for the past couple of weeks? Well…

Thinking
It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me, as I went on a much-needed vacation to my hometown to see parents and friends, and then spent most of the week that I was in Ohio watching news coverage of the hurricane headed straight toward my current state of Florida. First it looked like it would miss the state, then miss my city, then smack my city in the face, then maybe miss my city, then probably miss my city, then maybe miss it…. My husband and I ended up getting two extra days of vacation as both of our jobs were closed for the storm and its aftermath, and we were very lucky to come home to a fully intact house (albeit with no power for a day and no internet for five). My husband’s family members were not so lucky, and we spent a little time this weekend helping clean up his grandmother’s house. And now there’s another hurricane coming up the exact route, so, yay?

Reading
With all these weather shenanigans it’s been a tough time for reading! I wanted to read all the books on vacation, and I even had this grand plan to check out a book from my hometown library that I couldn’t figure out how to easily get at home, read it, and return it before I left. I did the first and last parts, but when I realized I wasn’t going to get to do the second, I decided it would make more sense to buy it from my favorite tiny used book store. I did get a few pages into A Race Anthology before I came home, but not enough yet to know if it was worth my $10.80.

Another book I didn’t read on vacation was The Stone Sky, the third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, but I did manage to finally finish it this weekend! I say manage, because I was unfortunately not as completely into this book as I was the first two. It was good, and I’m glad I read it, as it ties up all the loose plotlines pretty effectively, but it’s kind of Maddaddam-y in that it’s a bit too slow and plodding to be really exciting.

Listening
Speaking of slow and plodding, the husband and I failed to listen to The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three-Body Problem, on our road trip. Guys, it is so dense and convoluted and we listened to it for two hours that felt like eleven and we got maybe two minutes of information out of it. So we abandoned ship and listened to a super weird book called All Our Wrong Todays instead. I picked it to listen to because it promised time travel, but it turned out that time travel didn’t really have anything to do with the story except to set it in motion. It’s actually a lot more about identity and a surprising amount about gender politics, and I do want to give a little content warning that there is a brief scene of sexual violence that comes out of nowhere and then longer scenes of people talking about that scene, so, you know. FYI. I seriously just came here for the time travel. But even though it dives headlong into some Tough Topics, it does it with some awesome snark, so overall we ended up with the impression that it was a pretty funny book. Hence, super weird.

In podcast-land, I’ve got a new obsession with the ladies of What’s Good Games, a show that my podcast player recommended to me a couple weeks ago. When I saw it I was like, “Ooh! Lady gamers. Oh, those episodes are all like two hours long. Well, I’ll listen to one and see if I like it.” Eighteen episodes later, I’m all caught up and eagerly awaiting next week’s episode, and also I maybe bought a Nintendo Switch because they kept talking about how awesome Breath of the Wild is.

Playing
Oh my goodness, Breath of the Wild is super good, guys. I’m like, not very far into it because I have a very short attention span, but I am super enjoying it when I do sit down to play it. I don’t think I’ve played more than an hour or two of any other Zelda game, so I don’t know how this one stacks up, historically, but I will tell you that it’s probably the prettiest one I’ve ever seen.

These last couple of weeks I’ve been mostly playing all the Two Dots on my phone because it’s a good distraction, but my mother got me into a crazy complicated Farmville-esque game called Township that is one of those games where you make things so you can make other things so you can sell those things and make new things, forever, and everything takes a certain amount of time to make and my phone is constantly telling me that my crops are ready to harvest or my train returned to the station or whatever. I’ll probably be sick of it in another week or two, when it gets too hard, but for now it’s good brain candy.

Well, this has gone on far longer than I was expecting… um, how are you guys doing?

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The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate“You want me to catch the fucking moon?”

Yeah, no, that’s it, that’s my review — that one sentence at the end of a preview drew me in, and if you’re not at least a little curious this book might not be for you. But if you are curious…

Unavoidable spoilers for the first book follow, though really this series is largely unspoilable due to the books spoiling themselves all over the place, so… your mileage may vary. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t read the first book, I really do very much recommend it and you can come back to this after you’re done reading it.

Okay, so. This book picks up just after the end of the last book, I think, with Essun chilling in Castrima-under, the world’s weirdest geode. Essun would really rather leave this comm and continue searching for her daughter, Nassun, but pragmatism and Alabaster keep her in Castrima, where she can better survive and maybe learn how to end the terrible season that Alabaster started.

But actually, the book starts with us finding out what’s up with Nassun. After her father murders her brother he realizes maybe murdering children isn’t the greatest idea, and so he decides to take Nassun to a comm called Found Moon, where, allegedly, orogenes go to become stills. But of course, that’s not exactly what Nassun finds when she arrives.

The first book of this series was a huge exercise in world-building, giving us the lay of this land through the history and experiences of Essun. This second book does a little bit more of that, explaining the moon thing and giving us more info about stone eaters and obelisks and Guardians, but it’s also about power and how it’s wielded and who gets to wield it and why and how.

The first book wasn’t exactly subtle about its allusions to our current racial tensions, but this book digs in a little deeper and makes some very direct comparisons that I found pretty interesting. I know it’s pretty common for fantasy stories to portray societal norms in a way that makes people re-think them, but I really like that this one makes sure you know that’s what it’s doing but still offers up a story that isn’t just the one thing.

I missed the emphasis on action and adventure of the first book, and it took me a while to get into the more talky aspects of this one, but I still really very much enjoyed this book. As always, the world-building and characters are excellent, and the writing is just absolutely amazing and includes all the right swears in all the right places. And, you know, it doles out all the good tidbits of story at precisely the right moments to make you want more. Like right now. It’s a good think I’m still catching up on Jemisin’s backlist, or it might be a code red around here.

Recommendation: Read only after reading the first book, but absolutely go read the first book.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken KingdomsI read the first book in this series, and Jemisin’s first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a little over a year ago, and liked it pretty well. I thought the premise was interesting and the writing very cool if kind of weird to follow sometimes. Then I followed that up with Jemisin’s most recent novel, the first in a completely different series, The Fifth Season, and I loved that book SO HARD. I have no idea when that book’s sequel is coming out, so until then I’ll be over here reading through Jemisin’s decent-sized backlist.

I was a little worried coming back to this series, since I loved the later book so much more, but this book falls solidly in between the two on my Line of Adoration that I just made up. It’s technically a sequel to the first book, but I barely remember the details of that book and I did just fine here. All the stuff from the first book that’s important is mentioned when needed, and anything else is just window dressing.

And, luckily, this follow-up gets rid of the weird interludes of the first novel that made it so hard to read. This narrative is much more straightforward, but it still has a bit of a twist in that the protagonist is blind. Sort of. I mean, yes, she’s blind, but she can “see” magic and the things that magic touches, and there’s a lot of magic in this book. So the narrative is filled with a lot of description of touching and hearing and smelling and so forth, but then also sometimes with some unexpectedly complex descriptions of seeing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but then this is a Jemisin novel and that’s just what you’re getting into when you read one.

Aaaaanyway, in the story proper our protagonist, Oree, is living a more or less simple life as a blind artist and vendor, while also hanging out with godlings (the gods’ kids) and housing a very strange sort of being who doesn’t really talk to her. This is all fine until a godling she sort of knows ends up dead, which is not, so far as anyone knows, actually possible, and Oree ends up a prime suspect due to her relationships and her not-so-well-hidden magical talents. As Oree tries to figure out what’s going on in all quarters, she learns some very interesting things about the gods and the government and the way their strange world works.

And I loved it. I am officially a Jemisin fangirl, not to be stopped, and I am very much looking forward to continuing in her backlist. I love the worlds she creates and her characters and their adventures and the fact that she can develop so much drama and action and emotion in a relatively normal-sized novel — 400 pages is not nothing, but it’s easier to handle than certain other series I could name!

Recommendation: For lovers of fantasy and mythology and gorgeous sentences.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth SeasonAfter reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at the beginning of the year, I knew I was going to end up reading more of this amazing author, but I also knew it would take a while because her books require some serious thinky thoughts, both for the content and the style. I had thought to just read her books in chronological order, catching up to her current book sometime in the next decade, but when I saw the advance copy of this one I just couldn’t help myself.

Let’s just say it’s a really good thing I’ve got almost the entirety of Jemisin’s backlist to go through, because otherwise I might die from the wait for the next book in this series. Give it! Give it now!

There is a LOT going on in this book, so if you’re like my coworker whose eyes glazed over after I got to, like, the third plot point, you may want to just skip this post and move on with your life. Also, a lot of the magic of this book is the fact that you know almost nothing at the beginning and then Jemisin parcels it out to you as necessary, so if you want that experience, skip this post and then go read the heck out of this book and then come back and talk to me about it.

For everyone else, I will do my best to explain.

The world: I guess it’s Earth, definitely a future Earth if so, where there’s one giant continent that everyone lives on that is full of seismic activity. The shakes caused by all this do the normal damage we’re used to from earthquakes, but also every once in a while a huge shake will cause a fifth season, during which the sky is covered in ash and the world is messed up for a good long while before things get back to normal. Also in this world are people who can sense and control seismic activity, and they’re called orogenes or, if you’re feeling offensive, roggas. Most non-orogenic people feel offensive.

The plot: The world is ending, due to one very disillusioned dude. A woman named Essun comes home to find her son murdered by her husband and her husband and daughter nowhere to be found. She sets off to find them. A girl named Damaya, who is an orogene, is given up by her parents and sent to the Fulcrum, a sort of military school for training up dangerous orogenes (read: all of them) to be useful members of society (read: slaves). A woman named Syenite, who is a member of said Fulcrum, is sent off on a dual mission with a much more powerful orogene — first, to clear out a harbor, and second, to get pregnant and make another powerful orogene for the Fulcrum’s use.

The deeper meaning: This book is, as you may guess, about systematic oppression. The dedication in my advance copy is “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” It’s some heavy stuff. If you can’t sess the race metaphor inherent in the orogene’s lives, don’t worry, this world is also obsessed with literal race and looks, with much commentary on how people look and whether they conform to breeders’ specifications (no, really).

The writing: I love it. I love it so much. About a third of the book is written in the second person, and I was iffy about that in the beginning, but you (ha) get used to it pretty quickly. As I said before, Jemisin dishes out most of what I told you very slowly over the course of the whole novel, through the chapters from each of the three women and also through some interruptions from the narrator to explain a few things, although these bits explain nothing and just leave you with more questions. Which is awesome.

Can you be an author fangirl after only reading two of her six books? If not, no worries, I’ll just be over here reading everything this woman’s ever written.

Recommendation: For fans of Jemisin, high-concept fantasy, books that make you think all the thinks.

Rating: 10/10

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsOne thing that is alternately very useful and very pathetic in my 2015 quest to read more diversely is the fact that my Goodreads TBR is pretty much full of diverse books and authors that I could have been reading this whole time. Case in point: this almost-five-year-old book that has been on my TBR list practically since it came out.

To be fair, the fact that this is a fantasy series didn’t particularly help it top Mount TBR all these years. I love the idea of fantasy series, but I am rarely willing to commit the time to read ALL THE PAGES, even in this series of three 400-600-page books. That sounds like effort, guys.

But it turns out that, as you may have guessed, that effort was totally worth it. I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book, but I liked it a lot and found it absolutely fascinating and full of really interesting ideas and I am totally going to read the rest of this series but probably not immediately.

So there’s this chick called Yeine, and she’s the leader of a nation called Darr and also the granddaughter of the dude who rules, um, everything. All the nations. As you do. Yeine is called to Sky, the city and castle her grandfather rules from, and she quickly finds out that a) her grandfather is dying, b) there’s going to be a literal fight to the death to replace him, and c) he has thrown her name into that fight, along with her cousins Relad and Scimina. Thanks, gramps!

Now, when I say fight to the death that makes it sound like this book is going to be action-packed and full of intrigue and subterfuge and daggers and all that good stuff, and that’s certainly what I was expecting. But it turns out that this part of the story is about politics, actually, and the ways in which people can fight without even having to see each other, which is pretty darn cool in its own right. This quieter intrigue and subterfuge plays out slowly over the course of the novel, leaving lots of room for what I thought was the more interesting part of the story, namely Jemisin’s worldbuilding.

So there’s this world-encompassing government that I’ve already mentioned, and you might be like, hey, how does someone run an entire world for any length of time without, you know, being overthrown twice on Tuesday? Turns out it’s pretty easy if you’ve enslaved your gods. All the gods. As you do. The ruling family, of which Yeine is a part, has the ability to command the gods to varying degrees, with grandpa Dekarta wielding more or less full power. Throughout the novel Jemisin parcels out information about the gods in their current state and the widely held beliefs about how the gods got there and also the actually true facts about how they got there and how they might get themselves out, which of course involves Yeine.

Oh, and, meanwhile, Yeine is trying to use her limited time left in this world (she has no illusions about her chances in the fight to the death) to help her homeland of Darr and to sift through the widely held beliefs and actually true facts about her mother’s life and recent death, and whether her grandfather had anything to do with the latter.

There’s a lot to the story, and it’s almost all really well done and intricately plotted and again, absolutely fascinating. But I have to admit that the ending was absolutely baffling to me, with all of the various threads of the story getting snarled in one big mess of a climax that probably has a logical explanation if only I could understand it. I mean, I understand the results of the crazy stuff, but I don’t really get how we got to the crazy stuff in the first place. Luckily the next book, at least from the preview pages I read, is going to move away from that weird stuff and give me different weird to look forward to.

Recommendation: For fans of epic fantasy and worldbuilding and big ideas.

Rating: 8/10