The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

To start (and to state my conclusion), this is a fantastic book with brilliant worldbuilding that confounds traditional characterizations of nature, government, allegiances and magic.

Nature is out to get you, vindictive and vengeful. The system uses gifted individuals like animals, their enslavement preordained and accepted by all as a part of the natural order of things. Selfishness and brutality are enshrined in a hybrid of law and religion known as stonelore, which also provides guidelines for the survival of a Season – a period of tectonic, volcanic upheaval that occurs when vengeful Earth makes her festering hatred for mankind felt.

Orogenes are the magic-wielders of this world. Capable of sensing and influencing the seismic activity around them. At once necessary and feared, they are able to cause and prevent the very thing everyone fears most – seismic activity. The Guardians control the orogenes, ruthlessly, keeping everyone safe through a form of indoctrination and partial enslavement of orogenes.

Being born an orogene is to be born into a life of self-hatred, knowing you represent all that everyone fears and that your society will kill you sooner than let you breathe the same air. The day your parents give you up to a Guardian, they will be happy to see the back of you.

People live in comms, communal arrangements akin to fortified villages, designed to survive the Seasons when they come. They do this by keeping out those who would steal the comm’s stockpiles and by ensuring limiting its members to those who can contribute, and never more than the comm is able to feed. This is considered a good thing. It is written in the lore.

Into this stable, accepted but somewhat unpleasant context, Jemisin pours her characters. We follow them through three separate timelines that interrelate in ways that gradually become apparent around the middle of the novel. Jemisin’s world is a rich tapestry cleverly and thoughtfully woven to provide a coherent and satisfying environment for the story. This is the greatest strength of the novel, in my opinion.

The story is the second strong point – there are actors and factions in significant number, although the main characters are kept to a disciplined minimum, allowing us to keep track of how we feel about each of them, and follow their desires, constraints and difficulties in great detail. These characters have roles, by which I mean they play a significant role that goes beyond their desire to satisfy their own needs – they have little choice in this, it follows them like a curse. A lesser writer would have written about prophecies, fate or destiny, but Jemisin describes the events, and we see the pattern ourselves for what it is.

The story leaves a lot unanswered, as befits the first book of a series, but I felt a comforting subplot was missing from the narrative – something that would provide at least a sense of resolution at the end of the book rather than a fairly long list of open questions that no doubt lead to further questions.

I had only one real problem with the novel, and that was with the relentless attention of the sexual oppression of the characters. There is not a single one who is not either in some way sexually oppressed, violated or abused, or either gay, bisexual, transgender, androgynous or cross-dressing. Most can tick at least one box from both lists.

While I applaud and encourage the inclusion of these elements into characters in novels, their omnipresence in The Fifth Season felt “shoehorned-in” by the final third of the book. A new character’s introduction at this point leads to a patient wait for the big reveal when they will turn out to have been raped as a child, to actually be the opposite gender I thought they were, or turn out to not be a gender at all, or a “Breeder” or a sexual surrogate or something. This isn’t a problem per se, but felt somehow cloying by the end of the book. It isn’t a function of, and doesn’t contribute to, the overall story, so it feels unnecessary. Perhaps I will get used to this by the next book and it will become part of the story and less of a distraction. I hope so.

This minor gripe aside, the world as built by Jemisin is a glorious landscape for the construction of a fantasy novel, a new take on magic and its presence and role in the world, and I look forward to the next installment. The broad recognition this book has garnered is well-earned.

Washington Post’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

I’m all about book discovery so I was very happy to find (via file770) that the Washington Post has published its choices for the best science fiction and fantasy of 2015.

You can find the Washington Post article here.

Their recommendations are below.

Washington Post Top Picks of 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson
The Fifth Season
N.K. Jemisin
The Only Ones
Carola Dibbell
Two Dollar Radio
Three Moments of an Explosion
China Miéville
Del Ray
Claire North

With a list this short, it’s inevitable that I find myself thinking phrases that start with the words, “but where’s…”. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for a list that limits itself to 5 books. It requires discipline, and requires that very good books be left to one side, which means that what was chosen must have been chosen for strong reasons on the part of the journalist.

I have already read (and reviewed) Aurora. The others have passed me by. I have seen the Fifth Season listed in so many places that I think I will now purchase it, as something recommended in this many different places must have a good chance of being good.

British Fantasy Awards 2015 Nominees

The British Fantasy Awards nominees have been named. I’m quite fond of the way the BFS nominate – they have a democratic nominations process, but the juries can add two further nominees per category as egregious omissions, which means that if the voting public undergoes a collective neurological event and puts a bunch of dross on the ticket, the juries have the ability to claw back some respectability by adding a few candidates that deserve to be there, which provides some ability to correct a failing trajectory. Assuming the jury isn’t the one having the neurological event, of course…

The awards ceremony is on October 25th, 2015, so there’s some time to read up and decide what you think ought to win. For myself, I have to admit that I have made absolutely no inroads into any of the material below, and much of it doesn’t immediately appeal, so I shall perhaps have to make an effort and acquire at least some of the writing below if I’m to understand the context of this award at all.

Best Anthology

The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic 2
ed. Jan Edwards and Jenny Barber
Alchemy Press
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
ed. by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone
Gray Friar Press
Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue
ed. Christie Yant
Lightspeed Magazine
The Spectral Book of Horror Stories
ed. Mark Morris
Spectral Press
Terror Tales of Wales
ed. Paul Finch
Gray Friar Press

Best Collection

Black Gods Kiss
Lavie Tidhar
PS Publishing
The Bright Day Is Done
Carole Johnstone
Gray Friar Press
Gifts for the One Who Comes After
Helen Marshall
ChiZine Publications
Nick Nightmare Investigates
Adrian Cole
The Alchemy Press and Airgedlámh Publications
Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites
Hal Duncan
Lethe Press

Best Comic / Graphic Novel

Cemetery Girl
Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden and Don Kramer
Jo Fletcher Books
Grandville Noel
Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics
Bryan Lee O’Malley
Through The Woods
Emily Carroll
Margaret K. McElderry Books
The Wicked + The Divine
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Image Comics

Best Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)

K.T. Davies
Fox Spirit Books
City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books
Cuckoo Song
Frances Hardinge
Macmillan Children’s Books
A Man Lies Dreaming
Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton
The Moon King
Neil Williamson
NewCon Press
The Relic Guild
Edward Cox

Best Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)

The End
Gary McMahon
NewCon Press
The Girl With All The Gifts
M.R. Carey
The Last Plague
Rich Hawkins
Crowded Quarantine Publications
No One Gets Out Alive
Adam Nevill
Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel
The Unquiet House
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books

Best Independent Press

Aunty-Fox-72ppi[1] NewConPressLogo1[1]
The Alchemy Press
Peter Coleborn
Fox Spirit Books
Adele Wearing
NewCon Press
Ian Whates
Spectral Press
Simon Marshall-Jones

Best Magazine / Periodical

 BlackStatic  Interzone  th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_40_september_2013[1]
Black Static
ed. Andy Cox
TTA Press
Holdfast Magazine
ed. Laurel Sills and Lucy Smee
Laurel Sills and Lucy Smee
ed. Andy Cox
TTA Press
ed. John Joseph Adams
Lightspeed Magazine
Sein und Werden
ed. Rachel Kendall
ISMs Press

Best Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)

The Relic Guild
Edward Cox
The Three
Sarah Lotz
Hodder & Stoughton
Laura Mauro
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
The Boy With The Porcelain Blade
Den Patrick
The Copper Promise
Jen Williams

Best Non-Fiction

rtr23[1] Ginger Nuts of Horror
D.F. Lewis Dreamcatcher Real-Time Reviews
D. F. Lewis
D. F. Lewis
Ginger Nuts of Horror
ed. Jim McLeod
Jim McLeod
Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971
ed. S.T. Joshi
PS Publishing
Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions
Hal Duncan
Lethe Press
Sibilant Fricative: Essays & Reviews
Adam Roberts
Steel Quill Books
Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic
John Howard
The Alchemy Press
You Are the Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks
Jonathan Green

Best Novella

Cold Turkey
Carole Johnstone
TTA Press
Mark West
Pendragon Press
Newspaper Heart
Stephen Volk
The Spectral Book of Horror Stories
Water For Drowning
Ray Cluley
This Is Horror

Best Short Story

A Change of Heart
Gaie Sebold
Wicked Women
The Girl on the Suicide Bridge
J. A. Mains
Beside The Seaside
Laura Mauro
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
A Woman’s Place
Emma Newman
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets

I have not included the Best Artist award above, for which the nominees are Ben Baldwin, Vincent Chong, Les Edwards, Sarah Anne Langton, Karla Ortiz and Daniele Serra.