The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisen / *****

26228034I was a huge fan of N.K. Jemisen’s The Fifth Season, the first volume in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, in which she created a lush, compelling, diverse, nuanced fantasy world – and then ripped it apart, kicking off her book with an apocalyptic event that sends her characters into survival mode. More than that, though, there was the way that Jemisen used her unusual structure – interweaving three stories with different narrators and time periods – into one cohesive whole, building not only a lush world but also engaging in rich characterization.

The Obelisk Gate, the second volume in the trilogy, picks up almost immediately after the end of The Fifth Season – in one way, anyways. About half of the book follows Essun, the woman we met in The Fifth Season chasing after her husband – the man who murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter. By the time we ended The Fifth Season, we understood Essun to be so much more than she appeared – a powerful orogene (this series’ version of magic users, whose abilities to control the energies of the earth are both this world’s salvation and its biggest threat), a survivor of unimaginable trauma and grief, and a fiercely independent woman who has weathered the world’s attempts to wear her down. That serves her well in The Obelisk Gate, as Jemisen steers the book into territory it touched on in the first novel – the question of whether orogenes, with their supernatural abilities, can even be counted as human – and explores that in complicated terms, questioning what humankind’s relationship is to the earth, and to the other creatures that live there as well. More than anything else, Jemisen asks this question: would the earth be better off without humankind? And what did we do that could cause something like these horrific Seasons?

That’s half of the book. Once again, though, Jemisen interweaves through those chapters a second story – that of Essun’s daughter, on the run with her murderous father. This is an unexpected choice, but a richly rewarding one, one that allows Jemisen to look at how we pass down intolerance or strength to our children, how children learn to define themselves as separate from their parents, and what it means to come to terms with your heritage. More than that, there’s the way that Jemisen is echoing the stories of these two women off of each other, doing a constant compare/contrast that’s equal parts great plotting and rich characterization.

In short, then, The Obelisk Gate is every bit as good as The Fifth Season and then some. Once again, Jemisen’s worldbuilding is unreal, but more importantly, so is her characterization, which gives every character nuance, depth, backstory, and a richness that’s impossible to ignore. There are no easy villains here, no pure heroes, and Jemisen forces us to make tough choices constantly. More than that, though, there’s the way that Jemisen uses modern issues – intolerance, racism, xenophobia – in quiet ways to structure her conflicts, creating obvious parallels with modern society that never turn the fantasy into pure allegory. Instead, Jemisen manages the remarkable feat of creating an incredibly human fantasy novel – one that uses its fantastical elements not as an end unto themselves, but as a way of exploring her characters and their relationships with the world (to say nothing of questions about power, authority, society, and more). I can’t wait to read The Stone Sky and see how this story ends, but more than that, I’m just glad that there’s a lot more Jemisen out there to read.


The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisen / *****

19161852I’ve been hearing for a while now about N.K. Jemisen’s writing, with most recommendations orbiting around her novel The Fifth Season, the first volume in a (blessedly already completed) trilogy named “The Broken Earth.” And with an itch to get back into reading fantasy lately, I was hoping that The Fifth Season would rekindle my love for a genre that has been letting me down a bit lately.

Man, did it ever work, because I loved this book a lot. From the rich worldbuilding to the compelling characters, from the focus on marginalized and damaged protagonists to the thematic richness of its ideas, The Fifth Season gripped me early and never let go.

It doesn’t hurt that The Fifth Season has such a bold, unusual structure. Unfolding across three stories that we alternate between, the story opens with its boldest narration structure: a second-person voice that places the reader in the position of Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered her son and run away with their daughter in tow. That this murder becomes almost understandable in the world Jemisen has created doesn’t make the crime any less horrifying, or the emotions any less powerful, and Jemisen’s unusual second-person narration has a way of making the book hit home in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that this story begins with the ending of the world – the unleashing of another Fifth Season across the globe: a catastrophe that may wipe out all life on The Stillness, a mass continent wracked by constant tremors and instability. (Jemisen’s small but subtle implications that this is not fantasy, but distant science-fiction set in a far-off future, make the world all the more fascinating.) This is a quest for justice set against the collapse of society, and that makes it all the more haunting to watch unfold.

That would be enough story for most authors. But Jemisen mixes in two other stories, each set in what appears to be a time before this apocalypse has been unleashed. In one, we meet a young girl named Damaya, whose magical powers – known as “orogeny” in the novel – lead her parents to give her to a man who can keep her safe. It’s the flip side of what happened to Essun’s son; in the world of The Stillness, orogenes – who can both control and unleash the destructive powers of the earth – are both needed and feared, and often killed as soon as their powers begin to manifest in uncontrollable ways. That Jemisen so neatly intertwines power and control, safety and destruction, makes for compelling reading; that we become so invested in Damaya’s survival, training, and learning who she is makes the story all the richer.

And then there’s Syenite, a grown orogene sent on a mission with Alabaster, one of the most powerful male orogenes alive, both to train and to provide him a chance to procreate. It’s this relationship that’s most fascinating and complex in the book; with the mixture of Alabaster’s anger and rage at the ways in which he’s forced to use his powers, Syen’s desire to prove herself and establish who she is, and the way this third of the novel finds Jemisen diving into the nuance of her world and peeling away the simple rules that Damaya is learning, it’s by far the most complex part of the book, and maybe the most satisfying.

Any of these three stories could be a great book on their own, but Jemisen’s gift for interweaving them is what makes them truly fascinating, as each story comments on the others in small ways and enriches the text we’re reading, giving the reader more information than the characters and allowing us to see what’s going on beyond the surface. Add to that Jemisen’s desire to focus on diverse, complex characters beyond the basic archetypes (I can’t think offhand of a fantasy novel that’s more diverse in terms of gender and race, much less one that incorporates those aspects so well), and you have a knockout voice in fantasy that’s giving me a fresh love for the genre that means so much to me. It won’t be long until I’m jumping into volume two, and I really can’t wait to get there.


Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett / *****

goodomens-hard-2006It’s been more than a decade since I last read Good Omens (full title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Since then, I’ve come to know and deeply love the work of Terry Pratchett, and I’ve become more familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman (who, at the time I last read Good Omens, had only had a couple of novels published). That’s made it a perfect excuse to revisit the book, and see how it holds up as a work by two of my favorite writers.

The answer: it holds up perfectly and then some, representing some wonderful union of the best of each author’s sensibilities, and creating something wonderful in the process.

Nominally, Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse, brought about by the birth of the Antichrist. But, in typical Pratchett style, from the get-go, there are reversals and oddities, from the way that the Antichrist is raised by a family who doesn’t know what their child is and simply raises him normally to the way the book follows an angel and demon as they attempt to prevent all of this from happening. And through it all, Gaiman fleshes out the mythology and imagination of the piece, playing off of Pratchett’s wry social commentary and gleeful silliness.

The result is, first of all, laugh-out-loud, consistently, constantly hilarious, from page one until the end. From a hellhound trapped in the form of a little dog to four bikers who nominate themselves as the followers of the four true Horsemen of the Apocalypse (bikers who have given themselves names like Grievous Bodily Harm, Really Cool People, Things Not Working Even When You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, and more), from the wonderful banter between a group of children to the running gag about how every cassette left in a car gradually turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits, Pratchett and Gaiman stuff the book with jokes and silliness, ranging from the profound to the absurd and childish. (My favorite throwaway gag involves a group of ducks that’s uniquely attuned to international politics because of all the “covert” meetings that happen at their pond.)

But what makes Good Omens great isn’t the sly parodies of The Omen or the wonderful silliness. No, what makes it great is what makes so many Pratchett (and Gaiman, to a different extent) books great: the way it uses the plot to get to something more meaningful and profound. What begins as a book about the end of the world becomes a study of human frailty (the demon Crowley’s thoughts about how human nature trumps anything he can ever come up with ring as true today as they did when the novel was first written), but also what makes life worth living. As with so many books by these two, the final confrontation doesn’t come down to an action sequence – it comes down to ideas, to optimism (or hope, perhaps) in the face of defeat and cynicism. That’s something both men have always been fascinated by, and always brought out in their work – that the world, and people, are so often horrible, and yet there is something magical and essential about life that’s impossible to ignore. That Good Omens turns that into the text of the novel is what gives is a surprising punch that hits home, even more than any scene of Crowley driving his rapidly disintegrating car or enjoying (what I assume is Gaiman’s work) the novel’s inspired modernization of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and, in one case, one that has never changed, and never will).

It truly is the best case scenario for a collaboration – something that brings out the best aspects in both authors and plays them off of each other, creating something that feels like both of their work and yet feels totally of its own piece. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s profound, and it makes you feel better about the world, even while we recognize the pain of it all. In other words, it’s typically brilliant Pratchett and Gaiman in every way.



Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King / ****

34466922One of the fun things about reading books that are co-authored is the chance to see how well (or not) author’s sensibilities blend together. Look, for instance, at how Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett each brought their unique sensibilities to Good Omens, creating something that felt truly like a fusion of their voices. And it’s not as though Stephen King is a stranger to co-authoring; even setting aside his short works with his other son, Joe Hill, there’s the double punch of The Talisman and Black House, wherein King marries his voice to that of another horror legend, Peter Straub.

Now, I haven’t read any of Owen King’s solo work, so I don’t know how well Sleeping Beauties represents a true fusion of their voices. But there’s undeniably a lot of Stephen King here, most notably in the rich pacing, which is something that I think Stephen King does better than almost any author I can think of. Like almost no other author, King has a way of starting sprawling and calmly, and slowly tightening the noose until the climax is all but inevitable and stopping reading is a fool’s errand. And that’s definitely the case with Sleeping Beauties, which starts simply enough – one day, women around the world are simply not waking up, but instead, seem to have become wrapped in silken facial cocoons as they sleep; what’s more, you do not want to remove the silk, trust me – but builds and builds to catastrophic levels, with a double-barrelled climax that takes place on two different planes of existence and absolutely flies, for dozens of pages.

More than that, Sleeping Beauties is rich with interesting themes, using its gender-affecting story to explore gender dynamics and relations between the sexes. Even the locations are rich with subtext, from a women’s prison full of no shortage of victimized women to small town politics, from female police officers to attractive reporters being judged by their surface, the Kings manage to take on the issues seriously and thoughtfully, rendering the women characters every bit as sympathetically as the men, even considering the fact that they’re two white dudes. (One can’t help but wonder if the book would change at all with a female co-writer – say, King’s wife?) And as the Kings interweave their massive cast of characters, their story manages to be about male rage and female empowerment, about the clash between “traditional” values and more modern ones, all while telling a gripping apocalyptic tale about a world in which all that’s left are a bunch of dudes – and anyone who’s read Lord of the Flies knows how this could go, pretty easily.

For all of that, there’s something off about Sleeping Beauties, some indescribable X-factor that kept me from being as gripped with the book as I wish I was. There’s a lot I liked here, but it also drug more than most King books I know, and you can’t help but wonder if Owen King’s voice simply isn’t as propulsive as his father’s, or as gripping. It doesn’t help that Sleeping Beauties‘s cast is so sprawling (opening with a list of characters that goes on multiple pages and feels a bit overwhelming), and ultimately, feels like a few threads could have been trimmed. (I’m thinking especially here of a late-book thread about two drug-dealing brothers who escape from prison thanks to the lack of focus on the penal system in the wake of this disease.) It’s a book I still enjoyed, and whose richness I appreciated, but I never really come to love it the way I hoped I would.


A Slew of Snow Week Reading

When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.

51qwwmse4bl-sx316-sy316Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***

ATWQInspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”“When Did You See Her Last?”“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustrationAll the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate EventsAll the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. 61uokarjc2lAnd it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory.  In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****

A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****

23208397Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****

Amazon: A Necessary End | “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” | “When Did You See Her Last?” | “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” | “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” | File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents | Underground Airlines

Fiend, by Peter Stenson / **** ½

9780770436322You could easily be forgiven for passing on Fiend as soon as I tell you that, yes, it’s a zombie novel. And yet, Fiend is the reason we never write off genres: because there’s always a chance that someone can do something wonderful, new, and fresh with it. Because while Peter Stenson has, nominally, given us a zombie novel, Fiend is also a novel about drug addicts – specifically, it’s a novel about meth addiction, with all the bluntness, black comedy, and unapologetically awful behavior of something like Trainspotting, married with the nightmarish reality of a world in which anything even close to “normal” society is gone.

Indeed, it takes a little bit to realize that Fiend isn’t just a drug novel in which our characters are hallucinating the horrors as a result of their meth habits. But very quickly, it becomes obvious that Fiend is a marriage of books: it’s a bleak, unrelenting portrait of addiction and what it does to people and their relationships; it’s a twisted, broken love story between two irrevocably damaged human beings; and it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story, full of zombies that emit mad chuckles instead of groans. And if you’re wondering exactly how Stenson ties all of these things together, it won’t take long to realize that Stenson is using the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the devastation of addiction, which turns you away from other human beings and into a self-destructive spiral in which all you care about is the next big score.

And make no mistake here: Fiend pulls no punches in its recounting of the methhead lifestyle. Stenson is a recovering addict himself, and every page of Fiend feels like the voice of experience is pushing through, depicting addiction with honesty, a certain black humor and self-reflection, and a refusal to pretty up any of the details. The result is a book with absolutely abhorrent characters, ones with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize, even as we recognize the poor choices that led them down this path. Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Trainspotting, which does so much of what Fiend does – depicts both the appeal and the bleak reality of addiction, all without judgment being passed except by the characters themselves…except that Stenson plunges these characters into a world where their drug habits might just be the only thing worth living for anymore, and where the pockmarked skin and rotting teeth of the addicts pale in comparison to the cackling dead outside in the dark.

In other words, Fiend is two books in one, and lets them play off of each other beautifully, letting the horrors be underlined by the selfishness (and self-destructiveness) of the characters, just as the realities of addiction are played out on operatic scale in the background as the world crumbles. And best of all, Fiend finds a grounding, investing us in our main character’s last grasp at a healthy relationship in the midst of all of this – and giving us one thing to actually hope for in the midst of all of the awfulness.

Let’s be blunt: Fiend is full of unsympathetic characters, lots of profanity, graphic violence, explicit drug use, and unblinking looks at how far people will go for drugs. It’s scary, violent, brutal, nasty, and incredibly bleak. It’s also darkly funny, incredibly thoughtful, reflective, unapologetic, and beautifully literate in a counter-culture sort of way. It’s a book that is undeniably not for everyone. But if you’re open to what it offers, it’s a fascinating read, one that tells an honest story about addiction by fictionalizing it, and one that finds a new window on a classic horror by turning it into something even scarier. I absolutely loved it; it’s not like anything else, and that’s undeniably a good thing.



Strange Weather, by Joe Hill / **** ½

34066621I’m not sure why it is that Joe Hill has become so thought of as horror fiction by so many people, myself included. Yes, his novels and stories undoubtedly dip their toes into horror, sometimes wholeheartedly embracing it. Yes, he’s the son of America’s most famous writer, a man who has become synonymous with the horror genre. But to categorize Joe Hill’s work as simply “horror” fiction is to do it a disservice, something that his collection of novellas Strange Weather reminds us. Yes, Hill can scare us…but it says something that the most horrifying, disturbing story here is entirely realistic and set within the everyday world, without a single supernatural element at all. Yes, he loves to push the boundaries of what’s “normal,” and dives into the trappings of genre fiction, including a great horror tale…but when your collection also contains stories about a man trapped on the outside of a UFO in the sky, a sobering look at American gun culture, and a thoroughly unusual apocalyptic tale that doesn’t fit into any sort of sort of conventional box, it’s hard to look at Hill as anything less than a genre writer who’s uninterested in writing stories that neatly compartmentalize themselves. And that’s all the better for us as readers.

As its subtitle suggests, Strange Weather is a collection of four short novels, each of which is engrossing in its own way, while also managing to remind the reader of Hill’s incredible range. The collection’s opener, “Snapshot,” for instance, is ostensibly a standard horror story, following a young boy as he becomes aware of a sinister figure in his neighborhood whose camera seems to capture more than just images of those in its viewfinder. And, yes, Hill lets this unfold in typical horror fashion, building its unease and then delivering a disturbing payoff. And yet, that’s not where the story ends. Indeed, Hill lets “Snapshot” go on longer than you expect, slowly turning the story into something more heartfelt and effective than just a standard horror tale, and one that surprises you by having more to it than just some creepy ideas.

Much the same could be said for “Aloft,” the third story here, which tells the story of a young man skydiving both to commemorate the life of a late friend and to impress the girl he’s been in love with for years. But his jump goes awry, not in the leaping, but in the landing – because he lands on what appears to be a UFO. What’s stranger?The UFO seems to react to his presence, giving him the things he needs, all while never allowing him a way down. “Aloft” is utterly strange throughout, feeling utterly unpredictable throughout, because we have little frame of reference. What results is part brush with death, part inexplicable alien encounter, and part paranormal story, all resulting in a satisfying ending more focused on its character than its plotting (though I loved the ultimate answers as to the nature of this craft). Similarly, the collection’s closer, “Rain,” is an apocalyptic tale, giving us a world where rain is no longer water, but instead hard, needle-like crystals wreaking havoc on what’s below. Following its lesbian protagonist (a nice move away from “white straight male” as the default hero for a story) as she makes her way across the state to convey the message of her girlfriend’s death to her family, “Rain” trades in the traditional post-apocalyptic tropes – panics in the street, martial warfare, paranoia – but in a uniquely 21st century way, with MMA fighters mourning their kittens, Russians spreading propaganda, government officials tweeting their threats, and more. It would all almost be a black comedy at times if it weren’t so bleak and haunting in its devastation.

But, in many ways, the most important – and the most affecting – tale in the collection is “Loaded,” in which Hill dives headfirst into America’s complicated, toxic relationship with guns. From loners who fetishize military equipment to racist snap judgments, from the links between abusers and gun violence to the pervasive and noxious myth of the “good guy with a gun,” “Loaded” makes no apologies for its stances and never backs down from the painful realities it’s depicting. No, “Loaded” doesn’t have a character spell out its messages, but it’s not necessary; the points are impossible to miss, and Hill makes them hurt as much as possible. It’s a viscerally, emotionally upsetting story, one that’s even more so in the wake of yet another shooting – but after all, when aren’t we these days? That “Loaded” is so potent, so upsetting, so powerful is maybe the best testament yet to Hill’s skill – and a reminder that, far from only being a horror novelist, Hill is something far more capable, surprising, and broadly talented – and if you doubt it, well, Strange Weather should be a welcome reminder.