The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

BrokenKingdomsThe Broken Kingdoms is book two in N.K. Jemisin’s fantastic Inheritance Trilogy. Book one follows Yeine Darr’s secret second soul and her ascension to god. Book two introduces us to Oree Shoth, a blind artist who can create and see magic.

Oree discovers Bright Itempas (she calls  him “Shiny”) in a muck bin and takes him in. Itempas is living as a mortal. Cast out of the gods’ realm, Itempas must learn how to truly love to atone for enslaving Nahadoth and Sieh to the Arameri.

At first I was surprised to see a new storyline introduced — I wanted to learn more of Yeine as the Gray Lady, though my initial  surprise quickly evaporated as I got deeper into the story.

It’s so refreshing to read a fantasy novel with a strong black protagonist. Jemisin’s characters are extraordinary; they’re deep and complex and conflicted. Godlings all have a nature they must be true to and discovering each godling’s proclivity makes for terrific reading. (There’s even a godling at the junkyard; Lord Dump is the godling of castoffs. If something gets thrown away — unwanted by anyone — it belongs to him.)

There’s little of Nahadoth, Yeine, and Sieh in book two — this is Oree and Itempas’ story and a fabulous, imaginative, satisfying one at that. I read this book twice back to back. It’s worth your time.

September — November, 2015

Light dependent

This means, in a way, that true light is dependent on the presence of of other lights. Take the others away and darkness results. Yet the reverse is not true: take away darkness and there is only more darkness. Darkness can exist by itself. Light cannot

— The Broken Kingdoms, book II of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

100000Kingdoms The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the fabulous first instalment in N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy series, The Inheritance Trilogy. There is so much to love about this book, it couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog post, but I’ll try.

First, Yeine Darr is the scrappy brown! protagonist from a small Northern outpost known for powerful women warriors and men who look after the children. She arrives in Sky at her maternal grandfather’s behest to become heir of the Arameri.

As ennu of her tribe and as half Arameri, she could command the gods of Sky (Bright Itempas (the Skyfather), Nahadoth (the Nightlord), Kurue (Goddess of Wisdom), Zhakkarn (Goddess of War), and Sieh, the Trickster) but instead she chooses to earn their respect. She wants to unravel the mystery of and avenge her mother’s death. You don’t just like Yeine, you love her. She’s strong, principled, yet wonderfully impulsive.

The backstory around the creation of the earth from out of the Maelstrom and how the Three — Enefa, goddess of light, dawn, and balance, Nahadoth, and Bright Itempas — formed the universe and everything in it is satisfying and compelling. You want to know more about how this world was made.

The push and pull between bad and good is fascinating. Delightfully, it’s not exactly what you might expect. It’s Bright Itempas, the god of light and order, vs. Nahadoth, the lord of chaos. In retrospect I found myself rooting for the Nightlord over the Skyfather. Typically, you’d like the god of light and order for good and the lord of chaos for bad, but read it and see where your sympathies lie. N.K. Jemisin’s Nightlord is a brilliant character. Imprisoned and full of pain, positively filthy with the potential for evil, he retains a clear humanity. He’s complex and sympathetic and you can’t help cheering him on.

Class figures heavily in the Amameri full blood, half blood, and x-portion-blood hierarchy. You can’t help but dislike the full bloods. They’re an unsympathetic bunch of power brokers who manipulate the gods forced to execute their every command.

There’s plenty of conflict in the book between class, race, gender, good, and evil, but it’s a lovely and refreshing take on these elements. As a reader, it’s a wonderful reminder that there are no absolutes and that flawed people, objects, and ideas are often the most interesting. Flaws don’t reduce; they elevate.

The succession ceremony — the dramatic pinnacle of this first novel — is full of surprises for Yeine and for sympathetic distant relative / underdog T’vril — both of whose fortunes alter forever. Typically, I have no issue with spoilers when writing about books, though I have to keep Jemisin’s secrets here so that you can enjoy the book as much as I did.

I have Mike Adams to thank for bringing N.K. Jemisin’s work into my world. I loved this book so much on first read, I turned right back to page one as soon as I finished it. Read it twice back to back. On to book two, The Broken Kingdoms. Squee!

August — September, 2015

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

winters-heartWinter’s Heart is book nine in Robert Jordan’s plodding Wheel of Time series. Mat Cauthon finally reappears from beneath the rubble pile that toppled him back at the end of book seven — only to fall into another sort of trap — he becomes sex toy to the Queen of Altara.

Mat spends most of book nine plotting and finally executing his escape — but not before he manages to (finally!) meet the Daughter of the Nine Moons — the woman Mat has envisioned he’s supposed to marry ( although as one of those nasty Seanchan, she doesn’t seem much the marrying kind).  This is just a sample of the frustrations of this series, where hundreds of pages go by and plot threads disappear or randomly reappear, sometimes books later. Case in point: Faile is currently held prisoner by the Shaido Aiel. Perrin has been (theoretically) searching for her for the entire book, but we have no proof, considering their storyline dropped off in Chapter 6 never to resurface in book nine.

What this series really needed was a strong editor. Long, meandering clothing and landscape descriptions could have been scrapped to speed pacing and flow. An editor could have helped weave a storyline that doesn’t drop character threads for so long you think they’ve crawled off the page and died of boredom, waiting for their chance to escape the wings and get on stage.

Loial the Ogier remains MIA — missing now since book six, Lord of Chaos, though research reveals he returns in book ten, Crossroads of Twilight — just enough to keep me plodding along, too.

April — August, 2015

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

randomfamily Random Family is an incredible first-hand account following the lives of several families based out of The Bronx in New York City over a ten-year period. At the heart of this book is the familiar cycle of poverty: teen pregnancies, absentee/imprisoned fathers and harried young mothers who are ill-equipped emotionally and financially to raise kids — some of whom grow up to repeat the cycle.

There was no money, only a Starburst left. “Can I have that?” She asked her father, who then popped it in his mouth. He exaggerated it’s deliciousness. “Bite it,” he said, inviting her to sample the sticky gob on the tip of his tongue.

“Gim-me!” Mercedes cried. Cesar pulled out the gooey and offered it to her, but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as she reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips.

In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar’s neighbourhood–the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love. Cesar’s three-year-old daughter walked back out into the world and left him behind.

Life is hard in prison and on the outside where the system is a series of speed bumps, hurdles, and roadblocks in the form of appointments and qualifications these women must meet — often with several children in tow — to get food and housing.

The ghetto is a patriarchal society of domineering, often shiftless or imprisoned men whose attention the women compete for.

A lifetime assault of contradictory messages–to be sexy, to respect, that all men were dogs but without them women were nothing–reinforced her sense of powerlessness and futility.

The beautiful thing about this book is the strength and resilience of the young mothers, who despite their hopelessly irresponsible and often violent men and a system practically set up to fail them, most of them “do right” and raise their kids, they best they can. As a reader, you want these women to succeed, you want to see their burdens eased, and you cheer them on.

Here’s an interview with the author, ten years after the publication of the book. This book is a striking, sobering portrait of one sprawling family, though the abject poverty and the system as oppressor are too familiar.

I discovered this book at the top of the Unlisted List at Vela.

August, 2015

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

BettyvilleI am terrified of getting old.

I fear becoming vulnerable mentally and physically. I’m afraid of not being able to look after myself, of my mind and memory dissolving and unraveling, putting me out of control of my life. I’m afraid that at times I’ll be lucid enough to know I’m failing. I’m petrified of becoming dependant on — at the mercy of — others.

In Bettyville: A Memoir, author George Hodgman leaves New York and returns to his family home in Missouri to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. As mother and son, Betty and George are a lot alike. Throughout their lives they’re both just trying to “get it right.” Betty did her best to raise a son she knows is gay but whose lifestyle she can’t accept. Commitment-phobic George does his best to care for an emotionally remote mother who is wonderfully cantankerous, independent, and fiercely unsentimental.

The book is about aging with grace, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, about preserving dignity despite memory loss and the body’s tragicomic fall. It’s about the distances between close family members, about the two people who supplied your DNA, yet fear acknowledging who you really are, and about how silences suppress the truth. It’s about allowing yourself to be cared for, to be taken care of. What’s beautiful about this book is the tenderness, respect, understanding, and forgiveness with which George treats his mother. We should all be so lucky to have someone like him at our side when our decline steepens.

Betty Baker Hodgman died just this past Sunday, July 26th, 2015. She was 93 years old.

I read this book twice back-to-back. It’s worth your time.

June and July, 2015

The White Queen by Phillippa Gregory

thewhitequeenI discovered this first book of six in The Cousins’ War series Googling what to read while waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete the next instalment in The Game of Thrones series. Recommended on this list by Vox, I feel like The White Queen is much more a historical novel than a fantasy novel. True, Elizabeth Woodville — descendant of water goddess Melusina — can cast spells to control weather and injure her foes, though this magical element is a tiny part of the book.

The White Queen tells Elizabeth’s Woodville’s story: an unlikely widow marries a king in secret and, after the secret wedding is revealed, various factions in England play tug-of-war with the throne for the following 300 pages. The allegiances dissolve and reform so fast that you need a pen and paper to keep tally. I learned early on in reading this book not to count on any loyalty from anyone and found this the most disappointing aspect of the book. There are few — if any — characters to root for.

To say the Plantagenets, the Yorks, and the Tudors lacked imagination in naming their children is an understatement. There are so many Edwards, Richards, Elizabeths, Henrys, and Georges that you need an org chart and an alive/dead/in exile scorecard to keep track of who is who and where they are.

There are five more books in this series, covering different real-life players in a true life 15th Century England game of thrones, though they’re not for me.

June — July, 2015

Betty is unsentimental

when Jane comes out, we hug, but Betty draws back. Her family, the Bakers, did not hug socially, and she is not a woman who cares much for such. Nor is she often sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with.

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

On the second read of Bettyville. Fantastic book.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

On the Move_ A Life - Oliver Sacks Read Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life and prepare yourself for a series of vignettes by a master storyteller. It’s as though Oliver has arrived at your dinner table to regale you with anecdotes, memories, and stories of his career, travels, writing, relationships, loves, and life. As a reader, you want to make sure his wine glass stays full, so that he keeps on talking.

Sacks’ enthusiasms are deep and expansive. It’s this passion, palpable warmth, and self-deprecating charm that compel you to adore him. His fascination with the brain, deep respect and appreciation for science, and empathy for his patients anchor the book. Around these snapshots of his career are stories about his love for California in the 60s, his passion for motorcycling, weightlifting and the Muscle Beach scene, his relationships, and youthfully prodigious drug use.

This book is worth your time.

June, 2015

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children-of-god Children of God is the sequel to The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s fabulous Jesuit time-travel tale. While I enjoyed this book and recommend it if you’ve read The Sparrow I found the plot, pacing, and new characters disappointing.

Emilio leaves the priesthood and falls in love with Gina Giuliani, ex-wife of Camorra mobster Carlo Giuliani. They’re set to marry, and suddenly, Carlo beats and abducts Emilio to fulfill the Vatican’s wish for Emilio to return to Rakhat. It’s this beating and abduction that disappoints. The philosophical discussion about whether the ends justify any means in the name of God falls flat. There had to be a better way to get Emilio to choose to return to Rakhat on his own terms.

The plot’s pace flags at times; Emilio arrives on Rakhat only after 90% of the book is complete. It seems odd that as a reader you have to wait that long for that main event in the book to take place. Rakhat’s political and social landscape have altered dramatically in the years since his departure; the Runa have overthrown the Jana’ata in an uprising initiated with Sofia’s prophetic chant in the Kashan massacre: We are many. They are few.

Sofia is revered on Rakhat as a revolutionary, toted about in a sedan chair as if she were royalty. Life on Rahkat has been hard on her and she’s bitter about losing her son Isaac, an autistic savant who essentially just wanders away from her one day, and never returns. There is a sad irony in Isaac. As an autistic, he can’t relate or connect socially. He’s born to a mother who used intelligence as prophylactic against human connection, who sold her incisive mind to escape prostitution.

Sofia and Emilio’s eventual reunion is awkward and tense, poisoned by Sofia’s bitterness and Emilio’s still-precarious emotional state.

While the prose is almost as beautiful as The Sparrow, the new characters — especially Gina, her daughter Celestina, and the second Jesuit mission crew (Carlo, Danny Iron Horse, Sean Fein, Frans, and Nico) — feel like one dimensional caricatures. It’s particularly disappointing because the characters in The Sparrow were deep and interesting and original. It’s too bad that so few of them lived to appear in the sequel.

If you enjoyed The Sparrow, you should read this book, though prepare yourself for a different sort of a ride.

May — 2015