Friday, January 13, 2017
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review is for books one and two in this collection: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I will add the subsequent books as I finish them.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin has created an amazing world and mythology. In the beginning, we are introduced to Yiene, a young woman who lives in a “barbaric” northern kingdom, who is summoned to the ruling kingdom where she learns she must compete for the inheritance of the crown with her two cousins. Yiene’s mother left before Yiene was born and was disinherited, but for some reason her grandfather (the current ruler) has brought Yiene back. Yiene is definitely a fish out of water, as she is thrown into cutthroat politics, both human and divine.
In this world, there is a ruling god, Itempas the Bright, who was once one of three ruling gods. But long ago there was a war among the gods, and Enefa, the goddess of dawn and twilight, was destroyed - and Nahadoth, the god of Darkness and Chaos has been enslaved to the human ruling family. There are also many demigods, who are the children of the original three. But now, only Itempas is worshipped, and those who try to worship the other gods are branded heretics.
Into this mix of gods, demigods, and humans, Yiene must discover her past, so that she can survive her present.
Jemisin doesn’t go easy on the reader - we are thrown into the main narrative, and we only get the backstory as Yiene uncovers it, and through some (at first) confusing conversations Yiene is having with someone - we don’t find out who for quite some time. This slow unwinding of the story made it difficult, at first, for me to really get into the character of Yiene and become emotionally invested. But by about midway through the book, the past becomes clearer, and the trap in which Yiene finds herself is revealed. From this point onward, I was hooked, and sped through the rest of the book.
Jemisin’s brilliance is revealed not just in the world building and plot, but in her depiction of the gods and demigods. Her depiction of them, both physically and through their actions, feels right - the gods don’t act like humans at all, but their actions seem consistent with their being. Picture Greek or Roman gods, mingling with humans, having their own jealousies and spats, but not being human. Really well done!
Now, from this description you might be thinking this is just another “young person discovers their secret destiny” story - nothing could be further from the truth. The narrative is wholly original, as are the characters. (Though I couldn’t help comparing the ruling family to the worst of corrupt ancient Roman emperors.) The entire world is unlike anything I’ve experienced in literature. If you want to get swallowed up by something entirely new in fantasy, this is the place to start.
This is the review for book two (The Broken Kingdoms) - there will be spoilers if you haven’t read book one (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms).
Wow! I practically devoured this book! I was captivated by the character of Oree from the very beginning, and simply could not put it down. Superb writing!
The narrative of this book begins 10 years after the events of the first book. The new goddess - the Gray Lady (who was the mortal Yeine in the first book) is now part of pantheon, taking the place (rebirthing?) Enefa. Nahadoth, the lord of darkness and chaos, has been freed from his captivity, and Intempas the Bright is now wandering the world in mortal flesh, sentenced to pay for his sins of killing Enefa and imprisoning Nahadoth.
The story starts in a far kingdom, where Oree Shoth, a young woman who is blind, lives with her parents. Even though she is blind, she can “see” magic when it manifests in the world, and she paints strange and wonderful pictures that her father tells her to keep hidden. She is close to her father, who has a gift of singing that he keeps hidden - he only sings for Oree, when they are alone. But like most young people, Oree feels trapped in her family and her country, and heads for the “big city” - in this case that means Sky, the place where most of book one occurred.
Sky has been transformed by the growth of The Lady’s tree, which manifested when she transformed into a goddess. The tree encompasses all of Sky, both on the ground and in the air. Oree lives and works in the shadow of Sky, where she sells her handmade trinkets to the pilgrims who come to worship the new goddess. She also continues to paint, but these creations she shows to no one, and does not sell. She has made friends, and even had a lover, named Madding, for a while - a lover who is a “godling”, one of many who are now free after the events of 10 years ago, though they are constrained to live and work in Sky. She now shares her home with a silent man she literally pulled from a garbage bin. Their relationship is purely platonic, and since she doesn’t know his name, she calls him Shiny, because he has the strange trait of glowing when the sun rises. He also has a tendency to accidentally injure himself or even kill himself through carelessness, but he always comes back to life the next day.
Events unfold quickly from this point on. Someone is killing godlings, and as Oree found one of the bodies, she comes to the attention of the religious officials. This escalates to her fleeing, and finding safety in Madding’s house. But the safety is short-lived, and Oree finds herself in a situation that seems to have no resolution. At this point she learns a rather surprising fact of her heritage, and becomes even more entangled in power plays between the divine and the mortal.
Jemisin has a real knack for the portrayal of the gods and godlings. They do not have human motivations or feelings, but these are consistent among them, making their personalities seem quite believable. I also found that I could identify with Oree right away, unlike my experience with Yeine in the first book. This, coupled with the nearly nonstop action meant that I read this book in two days!
There are overarching themes that continue from the first book. Though you could read this one alone, reading book one first will definitely enhance the story.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
An Alabama Christmas by Truman Capote
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I’m a sucker for Christmas books and stories. It probably started in childhood with How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and has just grown over the years. Every Christmas, I not only reread the Grinch Book, but also Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, and usually some other Christmas books and stories. When I saw this book at a used book store, I just had to have it to add to my collection of Christmas reading. Boy, was I disappointed!!
First of all, the quality of the writing of most of these stories is about what I’d expect to see from a Writing 101 course - half-fulfilled ideas, stilted prose, and even poor grammar!! (For example, using “loose” instead of “lose”.) The only two selections that rose above this were those by Helen Keller and Truman Capote, but even these stories lacked much emotion. I like my Christmas stories to tug at my heartstrings, and these failed to do so, though the Keller story was at least interesting. Some of the stories weren’t half bad, but there wasn’t really any one that made me want to keep this book for rereading.
But these complaints are not what earns this book a one-star rating. No, this book deserves the worst rating because of the story “Christmas on the Old Plantation” by Idora McClellan Moore. This story relates what the author believes is a warm, nostalgic Christmas on a Southern plantation. But the story is full of such awful stereotypes that I had to wonder if I’d been transported back in time to the 1800’s!! There’s the white family who owns the plantation, who magnanimously allows the blacks on the plantation to come to the “big house” on Christmas day to each receive a token gift. There’s the description of the “childlike” blacks celebrating in their own style, and the horrible ways the blacks are portrayed as serving their white “masters” - though, at least the author was aware enough not to call them masters, but it was evident in context. The whole story just turned my stomach.
Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. It’s a waste of your time. There are MUCH better Christmas books out there!
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Revisionary by Jim C. Hines
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is book four in the “Magic Ex Libris” series. I would recommend that you read the first three books before reading this one, as events in those books have direct bearing on what is happening in this one. If you’ve not read them, some of the things in this review will be spoilers, but I will not spoil the plot of Revisionary.
At the end of the last book, there was a huge magical confrontation that was impossible to hide from the “mundanes” - who up until this point were unaware of magic in the world. Our protagonist, Isaac Vainio, who is is a “Porter” - one who can perform magic using books - took it upon himself to basically let the world know about magic, after the big fight. It was too much to be able to hide, so he went public with everything. His hope was that the mundanes would see that the Porters could be a help to humanity. He was naive in that hope.
This book opens several months later, and Isaac has created a community/research center called New Millennium that does research into the limits of LIbriomancy, and attempts to keep it from being used by nefarious entities. However, the US government is conducting Congressional inquiries into the events of the last book, and is quite hostile to Isaac, the Porters, and other magical beings. The government wants to register all Libriomancers and non-human entities (vampires, werewolves, etc), or even lock them all up. I found this to be a direct parallel to current events in the US, with respect to Muslims. It was all driven by the need for “national security” - just as it is promoted in real life.
Things happen fast and furious in this book - there are attacks by magical beings, killing humans; there are attacks by humans on magical beings; and through it all Isaac has to figure out what’s going on and who he can trust. There isn’t much let up in the action, as Isaac and his companions go from crisis to crisis. This relentless pace, coupled with the very real-world political climate meant that this book was hardly “fantasy escapism.” While the magic is very fantastical (and really well though through), the politics and machinations by shadowy government figures felt all too real. Because of this, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous ones in the series. Don’t get me wrong - this is still a well-written book, with lots of cool magic and magical creatures. But because it takes place in what feels very much like today’s political climate, it wasn’t really escapism. For those who like their fantasy grounded in reality (if you know what I mean) then this book is spot on. For those who are looking to escape from today’s issues into a fantastical world, this is not your book.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Mary Russell's War by Laurie R. King
3.5 stars - the stories range from 2.5-4 stars
This is a collection of short stories that fill in the gaps and add more history to the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series of books by Laurie R. King (which begins with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.) All but one of these stories has been published elsewhere (including for free online) but it’s nice to have them all in one collection.
The title story was previously serialized on the author’s web site, and it follows the lead-up to, and outbreak of, WWI and its impact on a young Mary Russell and her family. It is told as a series of journal entries, often with accompanying illustrations (taken from actual newspapers of the time.) Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that extremely important events happen during this story. As such, it is a critical bit of life history for Mary Russell, and fans of the novels will be gratified to have a deeper understanding of the character.
The story titled “The Marriage of Mary Russell” is another one that fills in a gap left by the novels. At the end of A Monstrous Regiment of Women, we see Holmes propose to Russell, and her acceptance thereof. However, the next novel (A Letter of Mary) opens several years later, with the wedding a fait accompli. This delightful story gives the reader the chance to experience the wedding - which is not your normal wedding, as is to be expected by these two people!
“Beekeeping for Beginners” gives us the story of Holmes and Russell first meeting (as fully told in the first book of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), but told mostly from Holmes’ perspective. It’s quite fun to see what Holmes thought of that initial encounter, and subsequent events.
Most of the other stories only tangentially touch the novels, but all connect in some way and give fans more details of the lives of the two main characters, as well as more about some of the secondary characters - Mrs. Hudson, for example. While not every story is worth a 4-star rating, each one brings a little more depth to the characters and their history. Fans of this series will definitely want this book.