This is one of those books that has been on my radar for awhile. In fact, I had it on my Beat the Backlist reading list for this year. And it came up again just a few weeks ago when I went through the Unbound Worlds Top 100 Fantasy Books list. Almost three years ago now, at the beginning of 2016, I read a duology by Jemisin, the Dreamblood duology. It was a random choice. I was browsing the library shelves and they both happened to be available. I am always down for a standalone/duology (sometimes I can’t deal with a longer commitment than that) and it turned out to be not only perfect timing (right before a couple of snow days), but also, one of the best spur of the moment book choices I had ever made. I was so impressed with the creativity and world-building and social commentary in the set. To be honest, knowing how much I loved those books, and how amazing they were, I can’t say why it took me so long to pick up this one, the first in a trilogy that is likely Jemisin’s most well-known work. Things happen. I get distracted. Anyways…the long story short is this one is just as good, if not better, and I had already ordered the next two before I was even halfway done with this first one.
“But much of history is unwritten. Remember this.”
Usually, when I write reviews for series, I try to wait and do a single post for the whole thing. But after finishing this one, I think I’m going to have to split these three up. There is just so much going on that one post would not only overwhelm any readers, it would be too much for me as well. And so, in the spirit of taking it slow, savoring the experience, and appreciating the depth, here are my thoughts on book one.
First, a quick overview synopsis. I say overview because that’s the only option. If I try to truly go into the plot, this will turn into a crazy long and unwieldy review. To that end, we start this book reading from three perspectives: Syenite, Damaya, and “you.” Yes, one of the sections is written in second person and it is an incredibly unique reading experience. These women live in a sort of parallel universe Earth world; one in which certain people, called orogenes (or, in offensive slang, “rogga”) have the ability to manipulate energy to control the movements of the earth (seismic events). These orogenes are controlled and manipulated into what is essentially slavery, to keep the world safe, both because of them and from them. Our three narrators have this power. And when a fifth season begins (a period of time, caused by a natural disaster, during which the environmental state of the world is generally incompatible with normal life – leading to lots of death and martial law), they face a number of threats, decisions, and situations that cause them to question everything they’ve been taught.
If that outline was a little confusing…good. You should definitely be prepared to be confused for awhile if you decide to pick this book up. I know that type of drop-you-right-in “introduction to the world” is not a style that works for everyone. So, I’m warning you here: you have to work for it for at least the first third of the book. Even after that, as you start to get more comfortable with the vocabulary and details and characters and world history/lore, there is still quite a lot that is unclear. And though things slowly become more understandable, come together, as the book goes, there is never a point where you can truly lower your guard. At any time, there is a comment or suggestion or plot point that you really have to use your brain to follow. And though you absolutely get lost in things as you read, it is never what I would call effortless. However, it’s more compelling, I think, because of that. Also, it’s completely worth the effort. Because this is truly some of the most intricate, atmospheric and expertly unfolded world-building I have ever experienced. It seems almost as if you are reading a story of another country, like something you would be assigned for a university history class, than a fantasy novel.
Relatedly, as soon as you start to get a feel for the structure and vocabulary and circumstances of this world, the knocks start coming hard and fast. Jemisin hits the ground running and only ever continues to accelerate. Things are graphic, gasp-ably horrific, tangible, and, because they are also extremely recognizably metaphorical, everything is that much worse. But don’t let that dissuade you either. Many fantasy stories are meant to shine a light on something in our own worlds – the continued fight from the side of good even in light of the triumphs of evil. This one just manages to address that so well, that sometimes you don’t want to recognize how parallel it actually is. Though, as with all fantasy, you could conceivably read it without those deeper messages and just enjoy it for the foreign-ness and escape from reality it could provide.
There is, in fact, so much to unpack that I am not even sure where, or how, to start. Honestly, Jemisin’s explorations of power structures, suppression, exploitation, and aggressions both macro and micro (based, presumably, but not yet conclusively, since this is just book one, on fear and the goal of those in power to remain in power, as with all situations like this) are profound. There are so many beautifully sad correspondences between the way orogenes are treated in Jemisin’s world with the way minorities are treated in our own world. And the fine line between making them too subtle to notice versus too obvious (to a point of being insulted) is walked to perfection – you cannot miss it, but you are not beaten over the head with it. Overall, the confidence and assumption of understanding with which this book written is exceptional.
Some other random things I want to make sure I share. The little blurbs from folklore, stone law/lore, and other histories that are included at the end of each chapter are fascinating, insightful, and definitely some of the most affecting words in the novel. This really plays into the world-building that I’ve already mentioned/praised, but also they carry many truths in their own rights that I felt were important enough to warrant a separate mention. Also, there is a reveal, about three quarters of the way through, about our three narrators that straight blew me away. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll keep it as vague as possible (and maybe I’m the only one who didn’t see it coming, but maybe one of the benefits of having to pay so much attention to figure out the world they live in is that you don’t have time to pay attention to the characters themselves and therefore can’t predict it), and let me tell you – it was a put-the-book-down-and-gasp-out-loud moment that took me completely by surprise. I loved it.
The last thing I want to say is that it’s worth noting that the story, beyond all this deeper meaning and metaphors and reader effort, is fantastic. It’s a page turning plot, with kidnapped children, characters of unknown origin and ambition, mysterious history and power, and, to top it all off, wonderful foreshadowing about this being the final fifth season. Things build and come together in a phenomenal way and I am beyond ready for the next books to be delivered so I can continue the adventure/see what happens!
A selection of quotes for you to enjoy:
“The shake that passes will echo. The wave that recedes will come back. The mountain that rumbles will roar.”
“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how much we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”
“She must be cold and calm in her anger, lest a lack of self-control be dismissed as the mark of monstrosity.”
“Home is people. […] Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.”
“When the reasoning mind is forced to confront the impossible again and again, it has no choice but to adapt.”
“…neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.”
“‘I will tear the whole world apart if they ever hurt us again.’ But we would still be hurt, she thinks.”
“Even the hardest stone can fracture. It just takes the right force, applied at the right junction of angles. A fulcrum of pressure and weakness.”