The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

By George Saunders

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“”I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of his own. It is not my place start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why he gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used to many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?” (p. 10)

In 2005, George Saunders published a thin little novella called ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘. At the time, I thought its plot was charmingly weird:

The nation of Inner Horner is so small that it can only hold one of the six inhabitants of Inner Horner at a time. While they wait for their turn to occupy their nation, the citizens of Inner Horner occupy the Short Term Residency Zone of Outer Horner, the nation which total surrounds theirs. One day, however, a piece of Inner Horner crumbles, sending the momentary occupant of Inner Horner tumbling across the border into Outer Horner.

Unfortunately for the Inner Hornerites, this incursion is witnessed by Phil, a citizen of Outer Horner. Phil was once madly in love with a citizen of Inner Horner, Carol, and her rejection has made him bitter. Phil uses the sudden toppling of an inner Hornerite into his country to whip his fellow citizens into a nationalistic frenzy. He will co-opt the Outer Horner Militia and use them to terrorize, extort, and eventually disassemble the Inner Hornerites.

When I read ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ for the first time, in 2006 or 2007, I thought it was strange and dismal and funny. I love George Saunders, I love his whole vibe. I love his worldview, his dark, sad humanity. I love his sense of humor. I’ve loved George Saunders since the first short story of his I’ve ever read.

And I loved ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’, when I read it in 2006 or 2007. I thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.

But I read it again the other day, now, this year, 2016, not 2006 or 2007, and it isn’t funny now.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ is about the damage that a sadistic, brittle demagogue can do to a vulnerable population. It’s about how a cowardly population will cow-tow and appease that demagogue as long as he tells them that they are the best people on earth. About how they will overlook and excuse any cruelty towards people that they believe are different from them.

It’s not funny anymore.

This is yet another way that books are like people: you can lose them. Sometimes they turn into jerks as they age; sometimes you just grow apart. Things that you thought were hilarious when you were younger, stop being funny. Things that blew your mind the first time you heard them, turn out to commonplace. That’s pretty normal.

But that isn’t what happened here. ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ didn’t age badly – we didn’t outgrow each other. The world changed between 2006 and 2016: specifically, the line between ‘plausible’ and ‘absurd’ moved dramatically. And so my relationship with fiction premised on the absurd changed as well.

What I realized when I reread it this week is that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was only absurd in its details; its emotional message is completely realistic. People are small-minded, provincial, and cruel. We do display a near-total lack of empathy when we are confronted of the suffering of someone we have decided isn’t like us. It is possible to build a cultural movement premised on the degradation of other people. It is possible for that movement to gain traction in your country. It is possible for that movement to take over the government.

I think I assumed that, because some of ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was fiction, all of it was. That assumption was stupid and totally unwarranted on my part, but nevertheless: I think that I relaxed into the surrealist detail, allowed the weirdness to give me emotional distance.

George Saunders

I understood that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ was a parable, I understood that there was a moral point being made. I just figured, I think, that it was an exaggerated moral point. I assumed it was hyperbolic, satirical.

It isn’t though, not in 2016. It’s a deadly serious moral point wrapped in silliness. It’s not funny.

It makes me sad, either way. There aren’t so many beloved, brilliant, absurdist little parables that I can afford to lose one. It’s sort of awful to have ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ ruined for me by the changing of the world.

I wonder how Saunders himself feels about ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ now. I wonder whether he has startled himself with how prescient he was. I wonder whether he knew he was writing an almost literal prophesy, the future of my country and his.

I bet he isn’t surprised at all.

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.