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On Books

by Peter Heck

 

THE BROKEN EARTH trilogy
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, $39.99 (boxed set tps)
ISBN: 978-1-316-52179-4

The Fifth Season, the first book in Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, was a New York Times notable book for 2015 and a Hugo Best Novel winner the next year—followed by Hugos for the other two volumes in the series in consecutive years. Nobody has done that before—not even the fabled names of the Golden Age.

The Fifth Season pulls the reader in from the first paragraph, and keeps up the level of involvement right to the final pages. It begins with the end of the world. After a brief but vivid description of the locale, we meet two characters—neither named, though we are told that one is a stone-eater (we learn more about that, and other details of the world, later in the book). They carry on a discussion of stone lore (another phrase we learn more about later). Then one of them breaks apart the continent on which they stand—literally opening a fault that splits the land in half. The rest of the book takes place in the context of that event—the end of the world as they know it.

The plot follows the stories of three women—a young girl, Damaya, taken from her parents; a student named Syenite; and Essun, a mother who has just found her child’s murdered body. Jemisin traces their careers, which come together by the end of the book. All three, we learn, are orogenes—they can sense and to some extent control the movements of the earth, even preventing earthquakes in their general vicinity. This ability, which is heritable, has made them feared and hated by the general population—except for those who are taken in by the Fulcrum, an academy that trains them and turns their talent to socially acceptable uses.

When we meet Damaya, she is imprisoned in a barn by her parents, until Schaffa—a Guardian—comes to take her for training at the Fulcrum. He makes it clear to her very early that he has almost absolute power over her—and that he will not hesitate to kill her if she fails in her training. At the same time, he expresses great love for her, and a desire to protect her from all who might harm her because of her orogeny.

Syenite is a trained orogene, who is told she must accompany an older man—Alabaster, one of the highest-level orogenes—on an assignment in a seaside community. She is expected to assist him in his mission, and to bear a child by him—a task for which neither of them has much enthusiasm. But as they travel together and see more of the world than she has previously, Syenite begins to put together and understand some of what the Fulcrum has not included in her indoctrination.

Essun finds her son dead—killed by her husband, who has fled—at almost the exact time of the breaking of the continent with which the book begins and the subsequent huge quake and fall of volcanic ash. With society about to enter the period of anarchy that follows such extreme natural disasters—a Season, as in the title of the book—Essun decides to follow her husband. He has fled with her daughter, Nassun, who has also inherited the gene for orogeny. After various adventures, she finds herself in an underground community called Castrima, where orogenes are, at least for the present, accepted. Also there are several companions from her past, including a high-level orogene who confesses to being the one who caused the continental rift, and a stone-eater who presents the external appearance of a young boy.

Jemisin follows the three women as the plot develops, using their experiences to paint a portrait of the complex and ancient society of which they are part. We learn the history, the geography, the social structure of the Stillness, as the continent they inhabit is called—and encounter pirates, bureaucrats, aristocrats, beggars—and more stone-eaters. I won’t go too much farther into the plot, because the author has some wonderful surprises that I don’t want to ruin for the readers. Suffice it to say that everyone ends up in a place that appears to have a chance to survive the Season—and that the story continues in the second volume, The Obelisk Gate—which won the Best Novel Hugo in 2017.

In the second volume, Essun is settled into Castrima—and begins to recognize that surviving the Season, with catastrophic crop failures added to the social disorder, is going to be harder than just having a secure location. The nearby country is covered with ash, and unlikely to bear crops for the foreseeable future. And the wildlife has undergone several adaptations to the Season, much of it assuming aggressive and life-threatening behavior to humans who venture outdoors. Worse yet, other communities are seeking resources to help them through the Season, and at least one has its eye on Castrima’s built-up supplies.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Nassun, has traveled with her father to the southern end of the continent, where several young orogenes are being trained by a group of Guardians—who are not part of the Fulcrum. Nassun is accepted into their midst—indeed, she turns out to be the most powerful of the group. Among the Guardians is Schaffa—whose presence both comforts Nassun and alerts the reader that things are more complicated than they seem. There is another complication in that her father still bears a deep hatred for orogenes—and he allows her to study with the Guardians only after being assured that they’re working to “cure” her orogeny. Which, of course, they are not.

The larger theme of this volume relates to a large number of stone obelisks that hover in the air above the continent—artifacts of an earlier era, though their exact origin and purpose is at this point a mystery. Essun learns from the older orogenes in Castrima that she can draw power from them—at great personal risk—to bring about a major change in conditions, possibly reversing whatever process led to the occurrence of Seasons. And at the same time, Nassun begins to realize that she, too, can contact and somehow draw power from them. At the conclusion of the second volume, mother and daughter appear to be converging in their abilities—and the reader senses that they are headed for a reunion.

The third volume, The Stone Sky—which won an unprecedented third Best Novel Hugo for Jemisin in 2018—finds mother and daughter on the move. Nassun and Schaffa are headed north, after realizing that the viability of the orogene colony they have lived in is at an end. Nassun hopes that she can make her way to a distant site, Corepoint, where it may be possible to use her powers to control the obelisks and recapture the Moon—the loss of which, thousands of years ago, has led to the phenomenon of Seasons.

Meanwhile, Essun and the inhabitants of Castrima are on a journey to a distant city where they hope to ride out the Season—although Essun and some others recognize that the hope is a long shot at best. On the way they cross a desert, fight off enemies, gain a few new members, lose others, and arrive at last—at which point Essun realizes that she, too, has a mission on the far side of the world, and that her path will inevitably cross that of her daughter.

This volume adds a new main character—one that has been hinted at by the use of a second-person narrative in the previous books, and whom the reader has seen without necessarily knowing his full role. In this book, we get a look at the deep history of Corepoint and the origins of the pervasive inequalities and prejudices of the present-day society.

Without going too much farther into the plot, I will note that several characters’ stories come to a resolution, while others are left poised at the beginning of something new. Jemisin keeps a fine balance between surprise and inevitability—both are needed for a satisfactory conclusion, and The Stone Sky doesn’t disappoint on that score. There’s no indication that the author plans a continuation, although the world created for this trilogy could undoubtedly sustain one. But the conclusion feels right—while it’s not a “final destination” for all the characters, there are no loose ends.

Jemisin outdoes herself in the worldbuilding of the third volume, which takes the characters to an ancient city on the far side of the world and digs into the deep past to explore the origins of the orogenes, the Guardians, and the stone-eaters. But in addition to the fascination of the worldbuilding, the story-telling here—and the characters who are at the foundation of the story—are gripping and moving. Even the unsympathetic characters, the antagonists of the main plot lines, are well drawn and shown in some depth. It should be noted that the majority of the characters are described as dark-skinned, though there is plenty of variety in the cast (which is drawn from an entire supercontinent, after all); just as in Africa, there are all shades and types of people—even including those who are at first apparently not human.

As interesting as the overall plot is, a lot of the interest in these three novels is the author’s style, which changes from chapter to chapter, depending on which character the story is focusing on. Jemisin even manages to make the often-chancy second-person narrative voice work in one group of chapters—and the reason for it (a good one, in my opinion) becomes evident as the trilogy nears its conclusion. There are also a fair number of invented words—a traditional enough feature of SF—most of which are defined in a glossary at the conclusion of each volume. On the whole, the creative energy in the books is as evident in the page-to-page writing as in the larger narrative structure.

The publisher has released the entire trilogy in a boxed set, so if by some chance you haven’t caught up with the Hugo-winning novels for 2016, 2017, and 2018, here’s your chance. I think you’ll find it as powerful as I did. There are many well-regarded trilogies and series in recent SF and fantasy, but it would be hard to name a trilogy as consistently involving, imaginatively adventurous, and powerfully executed as The Broken Earth. It’s noteworthy that the three volumes each won on their merits as stand-alone novels—not as a “best series.” That shows that the books can each stand on their own legs—although it’s obviously best to read them in order.

Outstanding as they are, the three novels in the Broken Earth trilogy show only a part of Jemisin's range. Luckily for readers who want a broader taste, her first short story collection is now available.

*   *   *

HOW LONG ’TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH?
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-316-49134-1

Jemisin’s first collection of short stories covers a range from her earliest efforts in 2004 to 2017, by which point she was a best-selling novelist whose work was in demand by almost all the leading fiction outlets.

In an introduction, the author says that she was at first reluctant to write short stories, feeling that the generally low pay rate was counterproductive. She changed her mind when several established writers and editors told her that learning to write effective short fiction would improve her ability to write novels. The results are here—and readers should be thankful that she took the advice to explore the short form.

As a reader might expect, the stories cover a wide range of styles and subjects. As added value, four of the stories appear for the first time in this volume. Jemisin notes that several stories are trial balloons for worlds that could serve as settings for novels. “Stone Hunger” is clearly a first take on the world of the “Broken Earth” trilogy, while “Narcomancer” sets up the world of her “Dreamblood” series. Both stories are effective on their own terms, while giving a look at the inspiration that ultimately led to works at fuller length. A third story, “The Trojan Girl,” she says is a similar trial balloon for a series she ended up not writing—one can see the potential in the world behind the story, and perhaps guess at why she decided not to follow it up.

The author says that two stories here are explicit reactions to well-known stories by other authors: one to Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the other to Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Both give interesting insight into how a writer of color, of a younger generation, reacts to the situations created by those earlier masters. It probably won’t surprise anyone that her response is to dig in and fight back.

Another potential of the short story is the ability to experiment with styles and narrative techniques. Jemisin shows no hesitation in trying out something new, whether non-sequential narrative, second-person narrative, use of the present tense, and a wide range of dialects. She also tries her hand at several different modes of speculative fiction, from alternate history (“The Effluent Engine”) to horror (“Henosis”) to social SF (“Valedictorian”). A couple of the stories offer a glimpse of worlds that might be worth looking at for extended exploration—just in case Jemisin finds herself looking for a setting for her next novel.

As the title suggests, many of the stories are built around black protagonists or themes—from the days of slavery and segregation to modern city life to alternate non-Eurocentric worlds. A particularly winning example is the story than councludes the collection, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.” Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it gives a look at life in a flooded-out Ninth Ward where supernatural forces exert as powerful an influence as the hurricane itself. These stories also give Jemisin a good opportunity to work with voices and dialects that few other SF writers are likely to feel comfortable with—or to depict convincingly. It’s one of the ways she’s been able to expand the reach of the genre beyond its previous borders—borders that have only begun to disappear as more diverse writers have come into the field.

This collection is in many ways an ideal introduction to Jemisin’s work, as well as a veritable banquet for fans of the SF short story. Highly recommended.

I look forward to more from this extraordinary writer.

*   *   *

BRIGHT RUIN
by Vic James
Del Rey, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-425-28419-3

James’ “Dark Gifts” trilogy—which began with Gilded Cage—concludes in this grim look at an alternate world where magic-using aristocrats—“Equals”—rule an England that cast off its kings nearly four hundred years ago. Their rule includes a requirement that all commoners serve ten years as virtual slaves to the aristocrats—as factory or farm workers, personal servants, or whatever else the Equals dictate.

As in the previous volumes, the primary focus is on members of two families: the aristocratic Jardines, who are among the most powerful and privileged in the nation, and the slave-class Hadleys, two of whom are in their different ways seeking to bring down the system of masters and slaves. In fact, this third volume begins just after the violent quashing of a revolt against the Equals, with the Jardines’ father now firmly established as Chancellor of all England.

But the rebels have not given up. With the help of a few idealistic Equals, they are working on a plan to free several imprisoned commoners, followed by a nationwide protest they hope will force the establishment to recognize their power. Abi Hadley, who barely escaped being killed in a “Blood Fair,” a ritual execution of rebels staged by the Jardines and their allies in London, makes her way to the rebel headquarters. And her brother Luke, who escaped a magically guarded prison, is on the loose—quickly joining forces with two unlikely allies: an unconventional but powerful Equal and a revenge-obsessed victim of the Jardines.

James uses the escalating conflict between the magic-users and the mundanes to drive a much more active plot than in the previous volumes, which were set in more or less closed communities—the Jardine estate, the “factory town,” and the magical prison where Luke was confined. Now, the scene is spread out across England, and the cast of characters has become more inclusive both in social class and degree of magical talent. The political stakes, already high in the earlier volumes, now reach a crisis point—and all the characters have too much invested in the outcome to sit on the sidelines.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that the political themes here are strongly reflective of the actual British class system—even with due allowance made for the special character of the fantasy world. But with the cast of characters expanded beyond the Jardine and Hadley families, the variations and exceptions come more into focus—which makes this volume that much stronger. And the conclusion leaves things open for further explorations, assuming the author is so inclined.

The Dark Gifts trilogy marks James as an impressive addition to the British fantasy tradition. Let’s hope for more from her in the near future.

*   *   *

THE POINT
by John Dixon
Del Rey, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-101-96756-0

Suppose a segment of the population develops superpowers. How would the military go about taking advantage of this resource? Dixon postulates a secret wing of West Point, where talented youth go to develop their powers while learning the traditional values of discipline, duty, and loyalty to their country.

The book begins at a high school graduation. Scarlett Winter’s family is in the auditorium, waiting for their daughter to be called to the stage with the other graduates. But when her name is called—Scarlett doesn’t come forward. She’s blown off the ceremony, getting high with a boyfriend out in the country. We follow her through a series of escapades, culminating with crashing the graduation party one of the richest kids in the class—a Senator’s daughter—is throwing. And there—something happens, something that draws the attention of her father’s old commanding officer, who just happens to be in town. He gives her an ultimatum: face the consequences of what she’s just gotten involved in, which could include serious jail time, or enroll in the Point.

Scarlett has zero interest in a military career, but it sure beats going to jail. Her family takes her to West Point, where she goes through the initial hazing every new cadet faces, then finds out that she’s not a regular cadet after all—her slot is in a separate, secret unit being trained in isolation from the rest of the corps. There, she undergoes a series of bizarre tests, some bordering on the sadistic, until her superpower reveals itself—and it turns out to be something unprecedented.

The story then follows Scarlett as she begins to train, and to make friends (and enemies) at the Point. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t put her undisciplined ways entirely behind her. She discovers the hidden sections of the underground base her unit is generally confined to, and takes to wandering about the academy grounds after lights out—a serious breach of the rules. And she starts finding out other secrets, some of which threaten to call into question the very reason for her unit’s existence.

In particular, Scarlett and the reader begin to learn what happens to cadets who wash out of the program—“going to the farm,” as the lingo goes. It’s a bit more literal, and its implications are more sinister, than the phrase suggests. The novel reaches a crisis as a danger foreshadowed in the novel’s early scenes emerges from the background to pose a direct threat to everything the Point claims to stand for—and, of course, it’s also a threat to Scarlett personally.

Dixon takes a variation on a currently popular trope—the school for magic users—and blends it smoothly with a convincing portrayal of an elite military academy. I can’t claim any first-hand familiarity with military academies—other than a couple of movies and a few fictional treatments, my experience consists of one brief visit to the Naval Academy a few decades ago. (I did get to see a couple of midshipmen’s reaction when an admiral unexpectedly walked into the room.) But it certainly feels authentic.

A good read, especially if you’re looking for a different-than-standard take on military SF.

*   *   *

IN THE NIGHT WOOD
by Dale Bailey
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-328-49443-6

If fairy tales turned out to be true, a lot of them would be horror stories—ask anyone who’s read the unexpurgated Brothers Grimm. Dale Bailey, who has won the Shirley Jackson and International Horror Guild awards, takes this observation as the central theme of a book in which the hero, Charles Hayden’s, life is shaped by a Victorian children’s book. He discovers the book (also titled In the Night Wood) in a visit to the old family home and ends up using it as the subject of his doctoral dissertation. The book also leads to Hayden finding his wife, Erin, when he discovers she’s connected to the family of Christopher Hollow, the obscure author he’s studying.

The plot begins with a look at the characters’ early days, then jumps to their arrival in England, where Erin has inherited the ancestral home—the very house in which Hollow lived and wrote his book. Charles is planning to write a popular book to gain recognition and perhaps restart his career based on materials he hopes to find in Hollow’s library and the nearby village. But as we gradually learn, Charles’s fall from academic favor was caused by a personal lapse that culminated in a personal tragedy that threatens to destroy his marriage—and quite possibly to destroy Erin, as well.

All this is revealed gradually, while Charles makes attempts to uncover the story behind Hollow and his book. Even at first glance, it’s clear that the woods around the country estate Erin has inherited are directly responsible for the dark tone of Hollow’s book, and it isn’t long before the two Americans learn that there are local stories about children being lost in the woods that eerily reflect the plot of In the Night Wood. Meanwhile, Charles and Erin try to adapt to a way of life, with servants and a groundskeeper, far from what they are used to.

But more disturbing is a sense that the woods are inhabited by mythical creatures on whom the characters of Hollow’s book are clearly modeled. Most frightening is the horned man, a sort of king of the wood who appears to both of them at different times. In the book, he is a sinister figure who demands the sacrifice of a young child—and according to Charles’ research, this aspect of his character has been part of local legend since well before Hollow wrote his book.

Charles finds an ally in a local woman with a collection of historical lore—and a close personal link to the history of the Hollow estate. While this provides an invaluable boost to his research, he realizes it poses an implicit threat to his already shaky relationship with Erin. It further complicates things that she has a young daughter, who is about the same age as the protagonist of Hollow’s book—and thus a potential victim of the horned king.

Bailey builds the plot slowly, revealing bits of the background at a tantalizing pace. The book becomes darker as the story progresses, as the story of Charles’s past unfolds and as the true nature of Hollow’s inspiration becomes evident to Charles (and to the reader). The final scenes are hallucinatory—a convincing conclusion to a story that effectively transports ancient magic into the modern world. About the only thing that could have been better would have been a complete text—instead of the tantalizing excerpts Bailey provides—of Hollow’s book of the same name! Definitely worth a read.

*   *   *

THE BOOK OF MAGIC
Edited by Gardner Dozois
Bantam, $30.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-59378-9

Following the model set out in last year’s Book of Swords, Dozois sent out the call for original tales of sorcery and witchcraft, and all the other varieties of magic. Many of the most accomplished fantasy writers responded—and the result, a finalist for this year’s World Fantasy Awards, is worthy of the book’s title.

Dozois’ introduction summarizes the role of magic in human culture, beginning with our remote ancestors’ cave drawings—which anthropologists believe to be the equivalent of magical rituals meant to attract the game animals they portray. Magic therefore came before art, Dozois says. He then turns to the substantial role magic has played in imaginative writing in all eras, with the focus on the fantasy genre as it has developed into the modern era. It’s a good setup for the stories, which reflect the broad spectrum of the genre.

And of course it is the stories that are the point of the anthology. They include work from George R.R. Martin, Elizabeth Bear, Tim Powers, John Crowley, Megan Lindholm, Liz Williams, Andy Duncan, and others—seventeen in all, most of them a respectable length. And they cover a wide range of styles and tones, from the darkly sinister to the sardonic to the light and amusing. Naturally, they all have magic at the core, whether they feature elves, trolls and dragons, wizards and witches, or talented humans.

Martin’s contribution and that of Matthew Hughes are a kind of homage to Jack Vance, whose work Dozois always expressed a fondness for. They feature magic users contesting for dominance in a world that, like Vance’s “Dying Earth,” has rediscovered the dark arts after the decline of our technically oriented civilization. Those who enjoyed Vance’s fiction will find these two stories nice reminders of the original.

But of course that’s only one dimension of this multi-faceted collection. Crowley’s story, “Flint and Mirror,” touches on Irish history in the time of Elizabeth I, with a protagonist whose destiny brings him into contact with the great and near-great of the era—including John Dee, the legendary student of magic and advisor to the throne. Scott Lynch’s “The Fall and Rise of the House of the Wizard Malkuril” is a quirky, often amusing, look at what happens to the magical servants of a great wizard in the years after his demise. Megan Lindholm’s “Community Service” is told by a woman who boards pets—and works magic as a sideline. Lavie Tidhar’s “Widow Maker” follows a cynical mercenary hired for a quest into territory ravaged by a long-ago war between sorcerous kingdoms. And that’s just a sample of what Dozois brought together in what’s unfortunately going to be one of the last, if not the last, of his marvelous anthologies. Dozois passed away in May 2018. A great talent in the field—editor, writer, anthologist, critic, historian, and always a fan. He is sorely missed.

If you’re at all a fan of contemporary fantasy, this one’s not to be missed.

*   *   *

FANTASY FOR THE THRONE
One-Sitting Reads
Edited by Judith K. Dial and Tom Easton
Fantastic Books, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-2330-9

Here’s the follow-up to the same editors’ Science Fiction from the Throne, recently reviewed in this column. The concept is the same: short-short stories by diverse hands on a variety of traditional fantasy themes, perfect for a quick read in situations where time is short. On the bus, train, or throne; waiting in line or at the dentist’s office. The stories run from two to six pages.

The forty stories, each by a different author, are for the most part reprints, but it’s unlikely any but the most tireless readers will have seen more than a handful of them. As is often the case with short-shorts, most have a twisty ending; this is a feature, not a bug. The editors have separated them into groupings that reflect common fantasy themes: New Mythologies, Ghosts and Gods, Witches, Magic, Fairy Tales, Dragons and Weres, True Love, The Undead, and Death, each with a handful of related stories.

Among the authors are Michael A. Burstein (“Hunger”), Lillian Csernica (“The Power Behind the Throne”), Marianne Dyson (“The Pest Man”), Geoffrey Landis (“The Tale of the Fish Who Loved a Bird”), Edward M. Lerner (“Chance of Storms”), and Alex Shvartsman (“A Gnomish Gift”).

A lot of the stories are humorous, a few end with gruesome twists, and most of the best simply tell their story. There are even a few bits of verse—in other words, enough variety for almost everyone to find quite a few that they enjoy.

A fun collection, exactly right for those moments when you have just a few minutes to read but don’t want to leave off in the middle of something interesting.

 

Copyright © 2019 Peter Heck

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