Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2016 Hugo Winner - THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin

Last time, I praised Uprooted for the way it doled out its world-building. N. K. Jemisin ups the ante on this front significantly in this year's Hugo winner. The Fifth Season, the first in a trilogy, introduces a rich world full of exciting and original plot hooks that also serve as incredibly relevant allegories to our own world.

The Fifth Season takes place on a large, very geologically active continent called The Stillness. The frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis lead to frequent "fifth seasons," which are basically periods of post-apocalyptic struggle. For millennia, one empire, the Sanzed centered in the city of Yumenes, has managed to ride out the fifth seasons with superior infrastructure and the control of people with special powers called orogenes. Orogenes can control kinetic energy on vast scales, calming the tectonic activity, among other things. Because they are so powerful, the people of the Stillness persecute orogenes violently, and the Sanzed Empire keeps them as slaves, training and indoctrinating them at a special school called the Fulcrum. And that's just the start of the world-building.

Jemisin explains all of this while alternately following an orogene recruit named Damaya, a powerful trained orogene named Syenite (they receive rings as they advance, and Syenite has five of the ten possible), and an orogene hiding as a commoner named Essun, who witnesses the beginning of a new, devastating fifth season. And there are both more details about the world (I haven't even gotten into the caste organization of the empire's communities, or comms) and a few surprises, like the inhuman race called the stone-eaters and the strange obelisks that float around as relics of a "deadciv" - a more advanced civilization destroyed by fifth seasons of the distant past. It's very dense, but I never felt lost. In fact, the book has two fairly lengthy appendices, but I got by fine without them, reading them only at the end to fill out my understanding of the world a little better. Jemisin skillfully fills the reader in, almost always showing rather than telling.

Even more impressive: despite the complexity of this world, this is very much a character-centered story. We get to know and like the central characters very much, and the plight of the orogenes is an interesting metaphor for discrimination and exploitation of ethnic groups in our own world. Jemisin convincingly shows the hatred that the orogenes face, and the slur that people use against them "rogga" takes on an appropriate power here, and their exploitation also shows through clearly (in some rather horrific instances, some of which recall the history of American slavery).

I also think Jemisin's prose has developed really well since the last novel of hers that I read - it's rich and highly readable. This was an excellent novel; the best fantasy novel I've read in a while. I ended up reading four of the five nominees this year (missing only a purely sad puppy nom - review for Seveneves and Ancillary Mercy forthcoming), so I feel pretty confident in saying that the right book won this year. I expect this to become something of a classic, unless Jemisin struggles to finish out the trilogy on the same level at which she started it.

Grade: A

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

2015 Nebula and 2016 Locus Fantasy: UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

Most of Naomi Novik's published work is an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, the Temeraire series. I'm intrigued by the setting, though I was always a little afraid that it would pale in comparison to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Based on this book, a standalone fantasy novel, I'm a little more inclined to give Novik's other work a shot. It's a very well-written and imaginative work that often evoked the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which I consider a big compliment.

Establishing settings is one of the great challenges of science fiction and fantasy; lots of works throw the reader into an unfamiliar world in a way that can be alienating for big portions of a book, while others give you a long, unattractive expository infodump before you can settle in. Novik focuses on characters and then skillfully unveils this fantasy setting in a compelling manner; this was probably my favorite aspect of the book. Uprooted takes place in a psuedo-eastern Europe, late medievalish, and with magic. The main character Agnieszka is a young girl from a small village in the country of Polnya (psuedo-Poland bordered by a psuedo-Russia called Rosya). The village faces danger in the form of The Wood, the diabolical forest that sends out creatures to spread its magical corruption. The village is protected by a powerful wizard that the villagers know as the Dragon, who demands in repayment that a young girl come to serve him for ten year periods. Agnieszka gets taken as the Dragon's servant, but she soon finds that she has her own magical talents, which disrupts the gruff Dragon's typical brusqueness.

It's actually a fairly generic set-up for a romantic story, and, of course, there is one, but there's a lot more going on as well. And the real strength is Novik's prose, which is clean and clear but with a fairy tale flourish. Novik is especially adept at describing magic; she always gives both the spells of our heroes and the dark magics of the forest a tactile component. She makes it easy to imagine the feel of magic. And, as mentioned above, she really evokes Miyazaki's animated film Mononoke Hime (one of the great depictions of magical corruption in film) in The Wood's corruption without it ever feeling ripped off. The first half of the book also manages to capture some of the dreamy Miyazaki pacing that make his films so transporting.

I did have some problems with the book, almost all in the second half. After slowly creating a fascinating world, Novik proceeds to blow it all up. The pace picks up quickly and the book gallops to an apocalyptic conclusion. I neither expected nor wanted all of this world's mysteries and problems solved, but Novik seems intent on doing so. Not only does this strip away some of the sense of wonder, it also pushes aside character development for plot development, and the plot just isn't as interesting as the characters. In a way, though, I mean this as a compliment. I wanted to spend more time in the Dragon's Tower, and more time with Agnieszka.

Anyway, another good choice for the Nebula awards. I'm glad I'm catching up, as I missed some great stuff.

Grade: B+