What I’ve Been Reading, September 2018

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.

Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.

I’ll be honest—I don’t know if I would’ve torn through this book as quickly as I did if I’d been reading it, not listening to it. It takes a while for the conflict to really erupt into a direct clash, and when it does it’s just relentless mayhem. Sanderson manages to justify this somewhat, but I still feel like the book would’ve had a better since of progression if all that direct conflict had been meted out more. Mostly, the action of the book is small skirmishes, behind-the-scenes maneuverings, and a fuckton of talking. And I love dialogue, and there’s delightful chemistry between all the characters in this book, but it makes the arc of the plot feel kind of nebulous, like you’re never quite sure of exactly how far the crew is from achieving their goals.

Regardless, I’m definitely going to read the next two books in this trilogy, and maybe the second trilogy as well.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin — I can’t describe the plot of this book, the second in the Broken Earth trilogy, without some light spoilers for the first one, so if you care about that kind of stuff don’t read on.

This book takes place entirely during a “Season,” that is a period of global apocalypse, typically set off by some seismological activity. As with the first book, Obelisk Gate is split mainly into three viewpoints—Essun, an orogene (someone with the power to sense and cause seismological activity); Nassun, Essun’s daughter and another orogene; and Schaffa, a Guardian (another kind of sorcerer, meant to control and train orogenes, and thus ensure the safety of the Stillness.) Essun has given up on finding her daughter, and settles down in Castrima, a city built around an enormous geode, whose leader is actually an orogene. Orogenes are, for the most part, feared and hated, and communities where they can live safely are rare, aside from the empire-run “Fulcrum.” Essun tries to integrate into this community of “feral” orogenes, training some of the younger ones as she was trained at the Fulcrum. Meanwhile, her daughter Nassun is receiving her own training from Schaffa. With the Season in full effect, the old power structure of the empire gone, and local authorities much more prominent, Schaffa struggles against his very nature to act as more than just a tool of the state.

The Obelisk Gate is very middle-bookish. There’s not much plot until the very end—though that was the case with the first book too, and I still enjoyed that one a good deal more. I think the reason is that in the first one Jemisin was introducing this world, this society, and there were all kinds of fascinating and intriguing questions she was exploring for the first time. In this book, while there are a lot of revelations about the magic system, there aren’t as many about the society (society has mostly broken down), and the society is what I found really fascinating about Fifth Season. The Essun sections moved pretty sluggishly for me because of this, and those are the sections that make up the majority of the book.

By contrast, the Nassun and Schaffa sections I found fascinating. They were a bit more plot-oriented, but what was really so interesting about them was the way they reframed the society Jemisin fleshed out in the first book. We’ve seen the oppression of orogenes form the perspective of fulcrum-trained orogenes, but how does it look from the perspective of a feral orogene? How does it look from the perspective of one of the antagonists of the first book? In the Schaffa and Nassun sections, I found some of the fascinating internal conflicts that I’d so loved in The Fifth Season. I  was struck not just by Jemisin’s ability to show the effects of external power structures on the internal psyche, but also her ability to bend language to represent that interior turbulence. The characters in this book go through some wild shit—both emotionally and, uhhhh, magically—and Jemisin does a great job breaking language apart to represent that chaos.

All in all, I still enjoyed this book—just not as much as the previous one. I’m eager to read the final book in the trilogy, which shouldn’t suffer from middle-book syndrome since it’s. You know. Not a middle book.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin — And lo, I have read the final book, and lo, it good. It very good. In this novel, Jemisin takes time to look to the past—the deep past, before the seasons, when the old civilization of Syl Anagyst was thriving. While one of the viewpoints focuses on this ancient, prosperous world, counting down to The Shattering, the other viewpoints continue to focus on Nassun and Essun, whose paths are finally converging, as each seeks to stop the seasons in radically different ways.

A lot of the problems I had with the second book are fixed here. Where Obelisk Gate‘s focus on delving deeper into the magic system felt flat to me, The Stone Sky continues to deepen the reader’s understanding of orogeny and magic in a way that had me greatly intrigued—by placing us right in the head of a stone eater, witnessing the origin of many of the magical phenomena that have been fundamental to the past two books. Likewise, where Essun’s arc of coming to care about the community of Castrima dragged on in Obelisk Gate, in this book I was much more engaged, as the community faced serious dangers and hardships constantly. What it comes down to, I think, is stakes. Understanding the magic system is tied very directly to the emotional stakes of the characters in the Syl Anagist sections. All the magical phenomena have consequences, and learning about how these consequences effect the characters we’re following makes every new reveal captivating. And whereas in Obelisk Gate the threat to Castrima was very vague, and they kind of just talked about how they were running out of meat a whole bunch, in this book we see very direct consequences, and very immediate threats, facing the people of Castrima constantly.

Really, what makes this book is the fact that Jemisin chose to go backward. Rather than spending more time in the present, she devotes a significant portion of the novel to going far into the past, to examine the society of what is in the present a “Dead Civ,” and how even before the apocalypse, this prosperous civilization was already an apocalypse for the oppressed among it. In this way, Jemisin creates a portrait of cascading oppression, dehumanization, destruction, and retaliation, a cascade that has fallen for generation after generation, always engendering further violence and hatred. Apocalypse is not the scheme of an evil mastermind, it is a lived experience, resultant from systemic dehumanization with roots that reach back for millennia. This world that Jemisin has crafted presents a powerful, heavy image of apocalypse, which makes the building drive of two characters to stop this cascade all the more powerful. The climax of The Stone Sky is riveting, and the denouement is perfect. Jemisin had a tough task: how do you end a book set in a world with endless apocalypses? To have a character simply save the world, end all apocalypses and all oppression forever, would ring false. But if the characters accomplish absolutely nothing, well what’s the point of these books? Jemisin manages to end the trilogy in a way that absolutely rings true, and crystalizes the threads and themes she’s been building in an incredibly satisfying, definitive way.

There’s a reason Jemisin pulled off a Hugo hat-trick, winning the Best Novel award for each book in the series, and if you have any interest in fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, or works that are deeply critical of society, or works that masterfully capture the interior and voices of their characters, or fucking literature, read them.

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