Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Recommendations - some happy birthday epic fantasy

It's Book Recommendation Day - and a special one at that. Today we'll talk about the epic fantasy of NK Jemisin on the occasion of her birthday! Happy birthday to Jemisin, and let's read some really good epic fantasy novels. So today, to wish one of my favorite authors a happy birthday, I'll recommend some of her books.

NK Jemisin at the Brooklyn Museum

What do you mean by "Epic Fantasy"?

 If one asks four fans of fantasy fiction what "epic" fantasy is, one is likely to receive about six different answers. My personal definition - and the definition for the purpose of this discussion - is that Epic Fantasy is the subgenre of fantasy which concerns large, world-changing themes. An epic story is grand in scope, a set of events which divide the world into before and after. The Lord of the Rings is epic in that the fall of Sauron and his empire will have effects for generations to come. George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (from where we get the television series A Game of Thrones) likewise deals with world-shaping events. Likewise in Jemisin's books we deal with epic-scale events but, unlike these other works, view them from a more intimate point of view. Jemisin writes grand stories, but shows them through a narrow lens. So rather than the more traditionally epic focus on large numbers of viewpoint characters scattered throughout the world we get very human stories with the larger global changes as somewhat of a backdrop.

The Inheritance Trilogy

These books were my introduction to Jemisin, and a series I had the good fortune to find late enough that all three had been written  by the time I got around to reading them. This saved me the toughest part of being a fantasy fiction reader - the long time between books of a trilogy. I got to read all three books back-to-back-to-back -- and what books they are!

The Ineritance Trilogy takes place in a world which has already had one cataclysm in the distant past - the Gods War, which involved the three eldest gods in the world's pantheon:

Bright Itempas, the lord of the sun, of light, and the father. Lord of creation and order
Nahadoth, the Nightlord, or darkness and death. Lord of chaos and change.

Enefa, of the twilight. The only female of the three, the creater of life, mother.

The Gods war ended, long before the start of this trilogy, with Enefa dead, Nahadoth enslaved by a human race known as the Arameri, who are able to use their control of the nightlord and continuing relationship with Itempas to maintain a position of power in the world. This brings us to the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Here we meet Yeine, a chieftan of a matriarchal warrior-society known as the Darre. Yeine is brought to the Arameri capital where she becomes embroiled in both courtly intrigue and the ongoing struggles between the gods, the enslaved godlings, and humans. We meet a host of memorable characters, including the trickster god and eternal child Sieh who will take a more central role much later in the story. In the end there are revelations, moments in which we realize the assumptions we - and Yeine - have been making for the entire book aren't quite correct and, at the very end, a moment of sacrifice which will change the very foundation of the world.

The next two books deal with the aftermath. I'll not spoil the first by getting into plot, but suffice it to say that we meet humans who become gods, gods who become human, and finish in a place which surprises us while being true to the earlier story and feeling - even if surprising - still fair. It's a wonderful set of books, well worth reading. If you've not, I urge you to go experience them now. You'll be glad you did.

The Broken Earth Trilogy
This isn't quite a trilogy yet, as we're only two books into it. It's again a secondary world fantasy, opening with the twin shocks of personal and global disasters:

LET’S START WITH THE END of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket—except his face, because he is afraid of the dark—and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.
Thus we meet Essun, as a mother grieving over the death of her son. It's an opening paragraph which not only grabs our attention, but hints at what will follow: stories of grief, of endings, of cataclysms both personal and global. The death of a child is a shocking note on which to begin, but The Fifth Season is a novel which earns that shock, pays it back, and makes it a real and organic part of the story.

 We soon learn that the world - ironically known as The Stillness - is so beset by cataclysmic  earthquakes as to have an entire culture and language built around them. A disastrous global event is  season. Words carved into rock to survive seasons are stonelore. It's created a very pragmatic, literally downward-looking world in which not only is studies of the heavens and astronomy considered silly trivia, but the giant floating stone obelisks which drift above the world are, for the most part, completely ignored.

The Fifth Season, like the books of the inheritance cycle, is an intimate story, following only three women in different stages of their lives: a young girl, the young adult Syenite, and the grieving mother Essun. The three are linked by the rare ability to control earthquakes - an ability which caused them to be feared, hated, and persecuted. Like The Ineritance Trilogy, The Fifth Season and its sequel deal directly with class conflict, with racism, and with how hatred directed by society can become internalized. It's a smart book, a wise book, and an all too relevant book.

It ends with a hint as to why the world is as it is, even if it isn't quite fully explained as of yet. There's not yet an explanation as to why Essun's sections are written in second-person while Damaya and Syenite are in the more traditional third-person, but I trust that will come. There are already hints in the second book, which I'll not discuss save to say that it's a worthy followup. We begin to see more of the world, we learn that some of what we've taken for granted - including the works of this earthquake-controlling power - might not be what we thought it was. We spend more time with our small cadre of characters, come to know and love them.

There is, of course, much more to say. I'll not say it here, as the more you read about the book the less joy you'll have in experiencing them. They're books worth reading. Trust me on this.

And yes, those who've read the books will know that the above includes, in addition to a call to trust me, a lie. It's certainly a white lie, and one for which I'm sure you'll forgive me after you've read whichever book about which I'm keeping secrets.

So enjoy. And happy birthday to NK Jemisin.

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