It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day
I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.
It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. You can pick it up on Amazon for convenience, but if you have the time, I recommend supporting an independent bookstore.
Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.
Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:
For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.
Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.
BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so
And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:
To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.
That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.
I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.
The latest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series cements his reputation as the king of high-octane fantasy
There are three reasons to read Brandon Sanderson: the size and originality of the worlds he builds, the scientific rigor of his magic systems, and the river-in-flood irresistibility of his action sequences. The Stormlight Archive, his projected ten-volume magnum opus, is magnificently ambitious (ten volumes, ~1200 words each, should be done when I’m in my 50s), and coming later in his career than his wildly popular Mistborn series, it’s more sophisticated. The writing is smoother, the action is tighter, and the actionless parts are more interesting. He’s better at making characters you really care about, and the mythology of the world they live in approaches many actual religions in complexity.
In Oathbringer, the ancient evil that has haunted Roshar for millennia returns. The Everstorm has raged across the continent, transforming parshmen, an enslaved humanoid species, into a standing army bent on the eradication of humanity. The Knights Radiant, an ancient order gifted with magical powers for the defense of human civilization, have begun to return. Normal people manifest powers seemingly at random, and the ex-general Dalinar, the former soldier Kaladin, and the noblewoman Shallan Davar are frantically trying to collect these new Knights and to forge the countries and kingdoms of the world into an organization that can resist annihilation.
Oathbringer is a glorious mess. Glorious is a well-earned adjective, and mess might be unfair. It’s got all the goodies people expect from Sanderson, but it does stumble a bit. It’s so much slower than the previous entries. Many sections are overdescribed (not to Robert Jordan levels). For example, there’s an entire chapter about a soldier making soup. His comrades are training in the background, and the frame serves as a window into the bonds among the group. At the end of the chapter, you know more about the characters and the world. It’s worthwhile, but it’s really hard to forget that you just read an entire chapter about making soup. There’s also only one mega-climax at the very end of the book (instead of a series of smaller, but still epic, conflicts throughout the book, like midseason cliffhangers). There is action, and there are fights, but they feel more like skirmishes, scraps unworthy of the explosive finale. Finally, the amazing powers Kaladin and the other Knights Radiant began to master at the end of Vol 2, Words of Radiance, are used for mundane tasks for a lot of the book. There are exceptions, but Kaladin mainly uses his powers to fly from point A to point B. Compared to the very first pages of the very first book, where the Assassin in White uses his powers to engage in one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of fantasy literature, it pales. The finale more than makes up for it, but that doesn’t change that for most of the book, Kaladin’s Windrunner powers were basically a supernatural Greyhound bus.
This book is still great, and you should buy it now. Sanderson deepens the mythos he set out in the first two books, and each new facet adds more beauty and interest to the gem-like clarity of what he’s built. Sanderson has such an innate sense of place that what he describes is tangible. Mystical mountain keeps, overcrowded markets, barren wastes, all of it is there as a solid presence, not just a series of descriptions. Also, when the hundred-page climax comes, it is jaw-droppingly good.
This review ended up being more negative than I expected — I loved this book. I read it in three days. I guess the bad is sticking out here because Sanderson so reliably delivers greatness that it’s become background — invisible because it’s expected — and the less-great stands out because it’s so rare. I think Sanderson’s ambition is behind a lot of the issues I had with the book, but it’s also what makes it the greatest action-centered fantasy currently being written. There’s so much happening that sheer inertia makes the story hard to steer — it takes a lot to get anything moving in a different direction. Sanderson is a man dragging a boulder uphill. He might stumble, he might be a little red in the face, but he still gets it to the top, and when it rolls down the other side, it crushes everything in its path. The final battle of this book is mind-blowing. Everything that felt a bit awkward as it was moved into place throughout the rest of the narrative is exactly where it needs to be by the end, and it’s amazing because there is so much dovetailing so perfectly.
The first entry in The Book of Dust returns to one of the most solidly realized worlds in fiction
La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful, waterlogged fever dream built on the bones of a palpable reality. Readers who were transported by the original His Dark Materials trilogy should read it, without a doubt.
Pullman’s most impressive talent is how painstakingly he can build a place without letting boredom seep into the details. The first half of the book is an introduction to the world of Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent if unassuming 11-year-old, an innkeeper’s son who does odd jobs for the nuns across the river just outside Oxford. Pullman describes anbaric cars, naphtha lamps, and Protestant nunneries who serve Geneva instead of Rome, all those little pieces of difference from His Dark Materials that add up to a jarringly strange and exciting world. He also describes Yorkshire pudding, kitchen chores, school lessons, and reading — the standard building blocks of normal life.
For a good chunk of the book, Malcolm’s life is slow and sedate, but the things he does and where he goes are so powerfully described that it’s not boring, and suspense is always hissing at the edges of the narrative, whispering here and there like a fire just starting up — there’s no blaze yet, but the heat is there, and the first questing tongues of flame are licking the edges of the logs.
Without imagination, literature is nothing
The sheer joy of Pullman’s imagination is in full force here. The strength of his fantasy is its matter-of-factness. He grounds the fantastic so deeply in the everyday and uses it so sparingly that when it hits, it’s got the brightness of the strange but the weight of normalcy. The main action of the narrative is fleeing down the Thames in a canoe to bring Lyra to safety. Within a pile of mundane concerns — evasion of pursuers, feeding and changing the baby, protection against the weather — suddenly Malcolm and company meet a minor river-god who allows them to pass, or a child-sick faerie queen who attempts to steal Lyra. There’s the general background radiation of the bizarre — daemons, an ascendant and monstrous Church, alternative terminology (anbaric instead of electric, naphtha instead of oil lamps) — but outbreaks of the truly weird are rare, thus more powerful and believable. Pullman does not abuse the suspension of disbelief, so he can go farther when he invokes it.
Without realism, fantasy is nothing
The greatest feature of Pullman novels is that he treats children as children — that is, as complete people capable of experiencing pain, loss, courage and fear. Kids in The Book of Dust have to deal with the Real World, just like kids here do. When Malcolm is being pursued by someone who would hurt him, he beats him to death with a paddle, he feels each horrifying, grisly stroke, and he watches the blood pool out of his victim’s head. By contrast, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most courageous thing the Pevensies do is follow Aslan around until he pounces on the White Witch for them. Narnia is about the complete abdication of personal responsibility to a higher power, and The Book of Dust is about the terrifying responsibility of making human decisions in an inhuman world. There’s actual gristle in the challenges Pullman’s pint-sized protagonists face, and the solid reality of his characters’ struggles makes this an appealing book for readers of any age or genre affiliation.
The progenitor of fantasy literature writes with more creativity and style than his legions of imitators
Lord Dunsany is the grandfather of modern fantasy fiction. Tolkien set the world on fire with fantasy, but he used Dunsany’s torch. The 18th Baron of Dunsany launched his literary career in 1904 with The Gods of Pegāna, in which he constructs an entire cosmogony from whole cloth — a literary first for what is now almost required for any epic fantasy. For those who want their foundational fantasy texts a bit lighter, we’re looking at “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” today, one of Dunsany’s many short stories.
Dunsany uses a well-worn fantasy narrative, but stuffs it with invention
The actual narrative structure of the story is exceedingly simple. Man’s village is threatened. Man attains magic sword. Man hits bad things with magic sword until bad things are gone. The framework is not much, but what Dunsany hangs on it, the sheer inventiveness and substance of the world he drapes around the cheap coat rack of the narrative is what makes him a foundational author. Let’s start with that magic sword: Leothric doesn’t just yank it out of a rock like some idiot. No, he has to fight “the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes” and is made entirely of metal, and who has in “the midst of his back, over his spine…a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface.”
The hero of the story, Leothric, kills the beast and then gets the invincible sword Sacnoth by chucking the body into a furnace until the rest of the dragon-crocodile’s body melts away from it. If you know of a cooler way for a hero to get his magic sword, please comment with it.
Sword won, Leothric heads to his foeman’s castle. He enters the castle, goes from room to room, sees weird things, vanquishes weird things, and then meets with the evil wizard who is creating problems for his village. It’s not in the quality of the plot the Dunsany gets you, it’s in the depth of his world and the strangeness with which he populates it. His vision is potent, and his language delivers it undiluted to his readers.
Any nincompoop can stick a sword in a dragon. Leothric does it with style
What follows is just one example of Leothric’s trials inside The Fortress Unvanquishable:
Outside he felt the night air on his face, and found that he stood upon a narrow way between two abysses. To left and right of him, as far as he could see, the walls of the fortress ended in a profound precipice, though the roof still stretched above him; and before him lay the two abysses full of stars, for they cut their way through the whole Earth and revealed the under sky; and threading its course between them went the way, and it sloped upward and its sides were sheer.
Upon this narrow way over an endless abyss inside a castle Leothric meets and must slay the dragon Thok:
And he smote deep with Sacnoth, and Thok tumbled into the abyss, screaming, and his limbs made a whirring in the darkness as he fell, and he fell till his scream sounded no louder than a whistle and then could be heard no more. Once or twice Leothric saw a star blink for an instant and reappear again, and this momentary eclipse of a few stars was all that remained in the world of the body of Thok.
This one scene can stand in for what Dunsany accomplishes in his entire body of work. Any hero can slay a dragon, but Leothric enters a room in a castle that inexplicably contains an abyss, whose only light is that which comes from the stars on the other side of a depthless hole in the Earth. He kills the dragon, and its corpse tumbles through the endless dark, blocking starlight as it falls. The imagery is deep and rich enough to to make its reality rock-solid, and the contrast between the solidity of his description and the strangeness of what he describes is the key to the delight Dunsany manufactures in each story.
Her inventiveness, her attention to emotion, and her information-dense, fast-paced style build a rock-solid science-fiction story
I have a bad habit of only finding amazing books/series/authors right as they’re about to explode into the mainstream. For example, I devoured A Song of Ice and Fire when the television show was already in production but not released. I did it again with Nnedi Okorafor. She’s been writing award-winning stories for years and years, and only a few days ago, in the midst of all the buzz about her work becoming an HBO show, did I pick up my first one, Binti.
The first pillar is the author’s sheer creativity. This is the most inventive and fresh thing I’ve read in months. Nnedi Okorafor’s novella (the first of a set of three) is not really a happy story, but there’s a lightness and a joy in her creation, from biological interstellar ships that are basically giant star-shrimp, to the main character’s tech, based around “harmonizing,” which is a form of mathematical comprehension of the world so deep it may as well be sorcery. Binti uses harmonizing to optimize the astrolabes her family makes their living on. Astrolabes fit the same cultural niche as our smartphones but are much more powerful and beautiful. All this takes place in an afro-futurist world, where tech is extraordinarily advanced and cultural roots run deep. The conflict between the traditional expectations Binti’s family levies on her and her ambition of studying at the galaxy’s most prestigious university planet is the central emotional conceit of the novella.
The second pillar is Okorafor’s realistic attention to emotion. A general flaw of a lot of classic SFF is its treatment of emotion. It’s either overweeningly mawkish or nearly nonexistent. This is why rereads of Heinlein and Asimov just don’t grab me — the emotion that’s there is either too robotic or too overwrought. In Binti, Okorafor gives emotion its due — presents the concerns and internal torments of her characters in a clear and matter-of-fact manner — and then lets their actions as they navigate their problems do the rest of the explaining. Binti neither denies nor overfocuses on emotion. Okorafor plants the internal lives of her characters firmly, then builds the story around them without letting it get weighed down by them.
The third pillar of Binti’s greatness is the “chunk of meat” storytelling style. There’s a chunk of meat on your dinner plate that you don’t recognize. You ask what it is, but the chef shrugs her shoulders and walks away from your table. You are confused, but the presentation is interesting, and the aroma rising from it is irresistible, so you eat it, still lost but enjoying it immensely. “Oh, the main character can use math to generate an advanced meditative state, cool, great…oh ok, the ship she’s taking to university is a giant shrimp with titanium-hard skin. Cool, sure. Huh. Pass the gravy, this is delicious.” Okorafor’s chunk of meat style puts discrete and not-fully-explained pieces of the world in front of you, and the time she saves not info-dumping everything gives an immediacy to the story that carries you on a great wave, like how the Meduse…well, you’ll find out what that species does when you read the novella.
Binti is fresh and strong, from its powerfully-described world to its extremely relatable, loveable main character. Part of the freshness is its afro-futurism, and the impact of reading about an African spacefaring culture is every bit as refreshing as reading fantasy that’s not chock full of ogres and elves. It’s also a vital piece in building diversity in SFF — this triumphal entry in the field makes it a more inclusive and interesting place.
She hits the big three of SF: detailed world-building, great characters, and compelling plot
Octavia Butler needs no further praise, but she definitely deserves it, so here we go. Parable of the Sower is just one present under a very well-stocked Christmas tree of literary achievement. Her oeuvre is filled throughout with characters who struggle with believable problems in relatable ways, and with powerful new ideas that are not only appealing in an oh-that’s-cool way, but because they go right to the core of how people do live, and how they should live. Butler delivers all of these gifts in a direct, conversational prose that makes opening and enjoying them a deep and simple pleasure. The only person that competes with her for simplicity and clarity of writing is Ursula K. Le Guin.
Where are we when we enter Octavia Butler’s world?
The most striking accomplishment of Parable of the Sower is how believable its world is. Butler makes such small, but ultimately such significant changes to our world. The book opens in 2024, centering around a walled community 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.
The opening has all the shapes of normal life. Children doing chores. A sermon. A minister’s daughter getting baptized. Except the chores include picking fruit and vegetables from the family’s extensive home garden because store-bought food is prohibitively expensive, the sermon happens in the minister’s front room because his church, outside the neighborhood walls, was burned down, and the baptism, which takes place in a friend’s church across town, is preceded by a harrowing bike ride accompanied by armed adults through burned-out streets strewn with the starving and desperate. These details are ubiquitous — the forms of normal life linked with the changes that have already taken place, and those that are coming. Another couple of details: five kids are getting baptized together because all of their families went in together to share the debilitating expense of the gallons of potable water necessary for the ritual, and almost everyone works from home with weekly or monthly in-person check-ins because a daily commute is just too dangerous.
I could keep listing these for another ten pages, but I’m not Octavia Butler, so it would be extremely boring. Butler weaves all of these in so inseparably from the narrative impulsion of the story that each individual one passes notice, but their collective impact builds a world that seems kind of normal but is in constant flux and danger. Any of the trappings of normalcy are willfully imposed by the older generation. The protagonist lives in a gated community, completely normal! The tops of its walls are covered in crushed glass, and the keys to the front gate are jealously guarded by the heads of household. Oh…
Characters are at the center of any good fiction
The key to Octavia Butler’s work is her understanding of how people actually function, how they are. All writers, when they construct characters, are building facsimiles that readers are willing to accept if they’re done well enough. There’s no way to actually capture everything people are in a handful of words, but Butler comes close.
Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, is a young black girl, old enough to have some responsibility in the world, but young enough not to view responsibility as clinging to the structures of a dying past. Her father is a powerful presence, the neighborhood minister, a sensibly-acting and deep-thinking man who is the main personality actually holding the community together. The central conflict of the early book, aside from survival, is the clash between this strong-willed daughter and her stubborn father. They love each other deeply, but see the world in fundamentally different ways:
“Do you think our world is coming to an end?” Dad asked, and with no warning at all, I almost started crying. I had all I could do to hold it back. What I thought was, “No, I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” That was terrible. I hadn’t thought about it in such a personal way before. I turned and looked out the window until I felt calmer.
Butler is so good at people. They can fight and yell and disagree and love each other deeply. Lauren is in the midst of a big fight with her dad, and almost loses control and cries because she contemplates the death of the person being so antagonistic to her.
The most rewarding part of the early book is this relationship: strong, intelligent Lauren Olamina clashing with the man who raised her to be strong and intelligent. She recognizes her debt to him even as she hopes for an escape from his strictures:
I love him. He’s the best person I know, and I care what he thinks. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
Earthseed: the world’s going to hell, why not start a new religion?
As Lauren navigates this conflict, she logs everything in her journal. In fact, that’s the book. The Parable of the Sower is a series of Lauren’s journal entries, sometimes with a day between them, sometimes a month. The confessional style matches well with Butler’s vivid and conversational prose — the accessibility of the writing mixes with the emotional immediacy of the journal to cook a completely satisfying, easy-to-consume meal. As easy and fun to eat as McDonald’s, as nutritious as a kale salad. Another key function of the journal is it’s where Lauren starts building her new religion — Earthseed. Again, the entire world of the book is built on the linking of the completely normal (teenage girl journaling) with the new and strange (she’s journaling about her homegrown religion). Here’s verses 1 and 3 of Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina’s religious text:
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.
God Is Change.
We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end, we yield to God. We adapt and endure, For we are Earthseed And God is Change.
This is what drives Lauren through the story. God is change, and it’s humanity’s job to shape God, to accept, anticipate and influence change. It weaves over and around all that happens in the story: Lauren’s acceptance of and attempted control of change, from growing up in a civilized island in a sea of lawlessness, to surviving the fall of her neighborhood (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this has to happen), to traveling coastal California attempting to find a better life. God is Change.
The Big Three of Science Fiction
The Parable of the Sower is everything that’s great in SF. All the science fiction I love shares three traits: well-built characters, a detailed world, and narrative impulsion. Without believable, relatable characters, what is there to care about (ahem, Asimov)? Without a detailed exploration of the world, how the world came about, the anthropology of the society, then the otherworldiness of the SF is just a gimmick. And without narrative impulsion, where each page gives you a reason to turn to the next one, what you have is a boring book. The characters and world of Butler are built with a loving attentiveness to detail, and once you care about the characters and how they move through the world, that’s half the narrative impulsion right there. What provides the rest is the suspense Butler creates in describing Lauren moving through increasing danger towards her goal: is she going to get there? Oh no that was close! I have to find out! Octavia Butler is a champion, and reading her is a privilege.
Jemisin brings it to a close with The Stone Sky and demonstrates exactly why the previous two books needed Hugo Awards
N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a masterful finish to the most groundbreaking (ha) series of the past decade. Seriously — you can argue about all-time greats, but this is hands-down the most impressive post-millennial series I’ve completed. The world she builds, the characters she creates and how she makes them interact, and the falling-free man-the-ground-sure-is-coming-up-fast gravity of her plotting all combine and balance each other to make this book a place you want to be, filled with people you care about, moving through a plot that satisfies and builds anticipation in alternating cycles until the final payoff. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d been evicted. It was a physical place, with such weight that it left an emptiness behind. The last time I experienced that was 19 years ago in 7th grade, having finished reading about Frodo going off to the Grey Havens. I’d spent a month somewhere, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be there anymore. Jemisin’s world-building alone is Tolkien-level, but she isn’t heavily indebted to him, as a lot of contemporary fantasy is. This is a can’t-miss series for the vivid and original worldbuilding alone, but there’s so much more to recommend it.
If you want to get a small taste before you commit, Jemisin wrote a short story set in the same world a while ago (available in text and audio for free, because Clarkesworld is awesome):
You can’t have epic fantasy without a map, so where are we?
The Stillness is a single supercontinent that is supernormally tectonically active, criss-crossed with rift lines and volcanoes, all floating precariously atop the anger of the Earth. The extreme inhospitability of this world leads to something called Fifth Seasons, where seismic events create winter conditions for at least six months due to ash blocking the Sun, but they can last for years and have much more interesting effects, such as during the Fungus Season, where extended darkness occurring during monsoon season created a crop-destroying fungal bloom over 20% of the continent, or the Season of Yellow Seas, in which an unknown bacterial agent toxified the seas, causing decades of famine in communities which relied on fishing for sustenance.
The most essential people, without whom humanity would have succumbed to ash and darkness generations ago, are the orogenes, too despised to belong to any caste, but too useful to exterminate. They can perform orogeny, the etymology of which makes me twitch in pleasure. Oros is Greek for mountain, so orogenyis mountain-making, and sweet sassy molassey, that’s exactly what they can do! Magic in this fantasy epic is the manipulation of the heat and kinetic energy of the overactive Earth in a way that allows orogenes to explode volcanoes, raise islands, and create city-slaying earthquakes. It’s this last feature that makes the “orogenically-afflicted” into feared pariahs.
Being feared might kill you, but being feared and useful will lead to the subjugation of your people and an endless cycle of generational misery. Government-trained orogenes who pit their will and power against the fury of the Earth are the only reason humanity is still alive. Untrained orogenes are slaughtered. Trained orogenes who are disobedient are disciplined. If they don’t improve, they are slaughtered. A caste called Guardians does all the disciplining and slaughtering — one example is that, without exception, Guardians break the hands of young orogenes. If they have enough control to keep from causing an earthquake in their fear and pain, their reward is the setting of the bones in their hand. If they don’t have that control, the Guardian kills them. This dichotomy continues throughout their lives — stay useful and be allowed to serve; cease being useful and die.
The solidity and originality of Jemisin’s magic system, the immediacy of danger in the Stillness, and the intricacies of the society that lives there all contribute to making this world feel real. The last bit that does it is a trick used to great effect by Tolkien (and Jemisin): have your story take place on the surface of a depthless past. Most stories evaporate when you shut the book because their thread of narrative is all they have — in LOTR and The Broken Earth, so much happens off-screen that what’s on screen feels much more textured and deep. Stuff has been happening in the Stillness for millennia, and you can feel it. Each chapter ends with a sample from a historical text. Sometimes it’s simple survival stonelore:
Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures. Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.
–Tablet Three, “Structures,” verse one
Other times, it’s heftier:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the physical integrity of the Stillness–for the obvious interest of long-term survival. Maintenance of this land is peculiarly dependent upon seismic equilibrium and by an imperious law of nature, none but the orogenic can establish such. A blow at their bondage is a blow at the very planet. We rule, therefore, that though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, and through they must be managed with kind hand to the benefit of both bond and free, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood. They are rightfully to be held and regarded as an inferior and dependent species.
–The Second Yumenescene Lore Council’s Declaration on the Rights of the Orogenically Afflicted
Each time, it helps build a larger world for the single narrative to live in. The second example is especially effective because it mirrors reality so well. With a few changes here and there, it could pass for what was written not so long ago in the United States: the specious stuff used to justify slavery in the antebellum South — why, this is for their own good! Why, the good of Society must be our primary concern!
OK, so the world is great, but what’s actually happening in it? (Spoilers Follow)
In The Broken Earth series, the main plot is that a massive, continent-spanning rift has opened, setting off the Season to end all Seasons. Ash starts falling from the sky, raiders start riding across the landscape, and people buckle down and hope. By the time The Stone Sky opens, Essun, a mother searching for her daughter, is helping the community of Castrima migrate to a better location in the hopes of surviving. She’s also committed to appeasing the Earth (who is sentient — I don’t have time to explain, just read the books) by bringing back the moon, whereas her nihilist daughter is planning to use her powers to slam the Moon into the Earth, ending the old bastard once and for all.
This untenable situation — a mother desperately trying to find her daughter and redemption for the awful decisions of her past, a daughter currently making awful decisions in reaction to her mother’s, the overwhelming knowledge that if they could just get together and talk it would all be okay OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER YET IF ONLY THEY’D TALK IT WOULD ALL BE BETTER.
The twin motivators — Essun and Nassun have to meet again! and How the hell will they pull this off? Are they going to be able to catch the moon? — keep the pages turning fast and without fatigue. It’s easy to get lost in a world that’s so big when you are deeply invested in what happens to the characters and how the fuck-up of this civilization will be put right.
The amount of information Jemisin gives us about the world in the finale is another reason to keep turning pages. The stone eaters are what? Orogeny was designed? By whom? In addition to creating the forward impulsion of Nassun/Essun // Apocalypse/Peace, Jemisin uses the third installment of her series to answer every single question we have about it, mostly through the flashback chapters about Syl Anagist, an ancient solarpunk city that spanned the world. It gives complete explanations for why the Earth is so angry, why some inhabitants of the stillness have superpowers, and what the hell stone eaters are. Nevermind the explanation of mysteries that have been following us the entire series: it’s a joy to explore the ancient city with Jemisin at the helm. Full of arrogance, far too satisfied with their own power, true, but look at all the cool stuff they had. Another benefit is that it takes this already fully-fleshed-out world, a world you’ve lived in for days (or weeks or years, depending on when you read the books), and makes it just the remnant of a 40,000-year-old far-future society, further increasing the depth and breadth of the world Jemisin built. The resolution in the novel is not just the resolution of two humans, mother and daughter, but of a 40,000-year-long war between humanity and the Earth. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. The story itself is super cool, but another really interesting thing Jemisin does is make all her main characters awful people. No, seriously.
Oh man these people make bad choices, but who are we to judge?
Jemisin doesn’t shy away from making her characters awful people, and it makes them much more believable. Awful people is maybe too harsh, but they do make awful decisions. Essun, the main character who has been searching for her daughter since Book 1, raised her daughter Nassun in such desperation and fear that she only ever trained her, only ever showed disappointment in weakness, because weakness meant death. Her love was the desperate love of the hunted — never free from the harsh drumbeat survive survive survive. Both mother and daughter are powerful orogenes, in grave danger if they ever reveal what they are. Essun even breaks her daughter’s hand in a horrifying parallel to what her Guardian did to her. It is a cruel torture, but it does ensure the victim has control. Without control, Nassun would be found out and killed. Essun does what is necessary to make sure her daughter lives, to the exclusion of everything that Nassun might see as love. She’s not a bad person. She’s a great mother in one very specific way, and a terrible one in another.
Nassun, ten years old, ripped from her home by a horror she can barely understand, stumbles through a destroyed world until she meets Schaffa, an ex-Guardian seeking redemption. She’s either physically or emotionally estranged from her entire family, and Schaffa (more on him later) gives her the unconditional love she’s craving so desperately. She falls deep into this dependent love, and it leads her to make some problematic decisions. When Schaffa brings her to a Fulcrum (a branch of the organization that sanctions orogenes) she literally kills every single one because, having figured out her mother is a trained orogene, she blames them for making her mother so cold and unfeeling. She goes on to ever-increasing acts of genocide, infected by the absolute nihilism of a ten-year-old who has lost everything she ever cared about. By the end of the book, she is willing to end the world to end its pain, an ambition beyond all but the most accomplished supervillains, but the magic of Jemisin’s writing is you understand exactly how she got there and are reluctant to pass judgment.
The dominant relationship in The Stone Sky is a bizarre cross-time triangle between Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa. Schaffa is the Guardian who broke Essun’s hand, who tortured her for her own good, who hunted her when she ran away. It is horrifying to watch Nassun fall deeply in daughterly love with her mother’s tormentor. The years (ahem, spoiler centuries) he spent instilling dependent love in others as a Guardian makes it a hard habit to break. Here’s the thing though: as toxic as his love is, and as dangerous as he is, he truly does love his charges, at least by his own lights. That makes it so much creepier.
You understand each and every character, from the most saintly to the most despicable, what their motivations are, and what they’ve done. My favorite quote about literature is George Saunders’ about fiction being an empathy-generating machine, and Jemisin’s machine is ticking over nicely. I might be horrified by some characters’ actions, but I understand why they did them, and that’s a luxury most readers don’t enjoy.
Go get The Stone Sky, and get it now (or the whole series, if you’re behind)
There is so much I couldn’t say here. I try to keep these under 1500 words, and I’m over 2,000 right now, but there’s so much greatness in these books that, if I tried to explore it all the result would be unreadable. The balanced, clear writing? How Jemisin pays attention to racial differences in a way that most fantasy doesn’t (most fantasy just assumes everyone’s white)? How badass the fight scenes are? Exactly what Guardians are and where they get their power? How orogeny is actually just magic and much more than rock-throwing? How freaking cool stone eaters are? This work is too big, too expansive, to discuss everything that’s in it in a single blog post, and my inability to discuss it comprehensively is the single greatest indicator of it being literally epic, as in “heroic or grand in scale or character” dictionary-level epic. It’s too big to talk about. I can’t share it with you here. You only have one option. Go read it!