The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Gilded Cage – Vic James

“I hoped you were going to be here!” Vic James said as she rushed across the bar at Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club a few months ago. She gave me a big hug and pushed something very exciting into my hand: one of the very first ARCs of her debut novel, The Gilded Cage, which is out early next year and the first in her Dark Gifts trilogy. “I do hope you love it!” she said.  
And I did.  

The Gilded Cage is a dystopian sort-of-YA novel set in an alternative Britain whose path diverged from our own at the time of the Civil War. In The Gilded Cage, the country is ruled by an elite of magically gifted individuals known as Equals. Ordinary people’s lives are largely unaffected by their magical rulers, save that every person, once in their life has to serve a ten-year term of servitude to the Equals. That time is known as slavedays. During that time, a person loses all their rights and becomes a chattel. But once a person’s slavedays are complete, they gain additional rights and status in society.  

The Gilded Cage follows one family who choose to do their time together, as soon as their youngest child is old enough to serve. They hope that by doing it early, the children will benefit in later life. Abi, the oldest child arranges for them all to serve at Kyneston, the estate of the quintessential Equal family, the Jenners, whose ancestors played a key role in the Civil War and its aftermath, and were the architects of the current system

The experiences of the three children are very different. The capable Abi becomes an administrator for the Kyneston estate before finding herself a character in one of her favourite romance novels: the ‘normal’ girl who falls for one of the Equals. Her youngest sister Daisy, whose job it is to act as nursemaid and companion for a young half-Equal child, becomes the well-treated favourite of Kyneston’s heir. But it is the middle child, Luke, who has the more interesting journey. He becomes separated from the family and is sent to Millmoor, a brutal factory town in the north of England. Through Luke’s eyes we see the cruelty and exploitation on which the luxurious and moneyed society depends. Luke becomes increasingly drawn into an underground movement focused on exposing and overturning that system.  

What I love most about The Gilded Cage is how quintessentially English it is, particularly in its treatment of class and privilege. And by that I don’t mean it is some Downton Abbey-like rose-tinted view of the past where everyone knows their place and is happy about it. This is a novel that exposes the cruelty, unfairness and exploitation that underpins such privilege. Inherited wealth and power is as fickle as the magical powers of the Equals. But the novel is also steeped in the experience of the industrial revolution. The ‘satanic mills’ of Millmoor are brutal, but leavened with human kindness. And there are nods back to events like the Peterloo Massacre. Even the characters and places are gloriously English too. One of the characters (Lord Lytchett Matravers) is even named after a place near where I grew up, and I know (once Vic pointed it out to me) the endless estate wall that inspires Kyneston’s wall. 

The Gilded Cage is glorious. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mine’s a Bourbon.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

A new book from Claire North is always an exciting thing to see and read, and the lovely people at Orbit gave me a review copy through NetGalley.  And this is North’s best book yet.  In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North introduces Hope Arden, a woman who no-one can remember.  Mere seconds after she passes from sight, every memory of seeing or interacting with Hope disappears, even though physical and digital evidence such as photographs and emails remains.

Hope makes her life as a thief.  Her forgettability enables her to case targets without arousing suspicion and to get away after a robbery by simply hiding for a while.  The novel opens with Hope planning to steal a famous necklace from around the neck of a Middle Eastern princess, in the middle of a reception to launch a new app called Perfection, which promises rewards for self-improvement.  Following the theft Hope finds herself in the middle of a feud between the makers of Perfection and a woman known as Byron who wants to bring down the company.  Hope is hired to steal the source code for Perfection, in exchange for research and treatment that might finally make her memorable.

The examination of identity is a recurring theme in North’s work.  In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the title character gets to live his life over and over again, retaining the knowledge and skills of each lifetime.  In Touch, the being known as Kepler jumps from body to body, borrowing lives and leaving them changed.  But in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North examines how we are defined by our relationships with others.

Hope’s life is an extremely lonely one.  Rejected by a family who don’t recognise her, she is forced to make her own way in life.  She has no friendships, living instead a series of first impressions from others.  She can get to know others, but she will always be a stranger to them.  Even the time Hope spends with Byron is dependent on Byron keeping thorough and detailed notes and recordings of all their conversations.  But even then, Byron’s interactions with Hope are necessarily informed by her own second-hand impressions.  But how truly can we know a person anyway?  North is externalising the fallibility of our own memories, which always give a partial (in both senses of the word) perspective on a person or events, filtered through a person’s own preconceptions.  And with Hope a person from an ethnic minority, there is a subtext here about the relative invisibility of some groups in society.

Perfection as an app also provides a biting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture and how much of our personal information we share with others and with corporations.  The app encourages people to aspire to and work towards an ideal.  The version of Perfection presented is based on a celebrity culture of carefully posed and filtered Instagram pictures and feel-good aphorisms that are ultimately pretty shallow.  Compliance with Perfection’s recommendations enables a person to earn points.  Points unlock rewards, from selected partners, and those who progress to the highest levels become an elite of beautiful and successful people living a Made In Chelsea-like existence of glamorous parties and holidays that is at its heart ultimately pretty unsubstantial.

But as a wise friend said once, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”  Perfection speaks to our world of big data, where corporations harvest information about us and our online habits, building profiles to sell us services and tailor the news that we see.  All in the name of profit, and with minimal regulation.  We consent to share our personal data for the quick thrill of an online personality quiz.  Perfection can’t be that far away.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope pulls off the perfect trick of being a taut, pacey thriller that critiques the contemporary world and explores the nature of identity.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Speak – Louisa Hall

Emotional intimacy, and the relationships that define us, are the themes of Louisa Hall‘s profound and insightful new novel Speak (Orbit, review copy through NetGalley).

Speak is a braided narrative, following several stories set in different time periods:

  • the diaries of Mary Bradford, emigrating to the New World in the 17th century.
  • the correspondence of Alan Turing as he seeks to create an artificial intelligence.
  • the letters of the Dettmans, an early AI pioneer and his wife.
  • the memoirs of Stephen Chinn, imprisoned for creating ‘babybots’ – dolls with a highly advanced AI that have triggered a strange syndrome in children that leaves them locked in their bodies, unable to move or communicate.
  • transcripts of conversations between a child, Gaby White, and Mary3, a highly developed AI.
  • one of the banned babybots.

Through each strand of the narrative we are forced to ask ourselves about the important relationships in our lives, and the closeness we have with those around us.  Mary Bradford treasures the deep bond and unconditional love she shared with her pet dog, feeling at best ambivalent about her new husband.  Turing forms a strange, confessional relationship through correspondence with the mother of a schoolfriend who died as a child.  Through the Dettmans we see the misconceptions we form about one another, even those we are closest to.  The bonds of their marriage start to fray once emotional intimacy is shared elsewhere.  Stephen Chinn discovers the secret of creating instant connections with others, but finds those relationships ultimately soulless and unrewarding.  The AIs he creates become a substitute for ‘real’ friends, isolating a generation of children from one another and their families.

There are parallels with contemporary internet culture.  The bonds we forge online can be profound ones.  Protected by a veneer of relative anonymity and physical distance from one another, we often feel comfortable sharing more of ourselves, and more deeply, than we might otherwise choose to do in face to face relationships.  We choose what faces we present to the world, and rarely more so than in the virtual world.

As technology develops Speak shows us that it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which relationships are more ‘real’ than any other.  Connections between people fragment, leaving them ever more isolated from one another, but paradoxically more dependent on a level of emotional intimacy previously difficult to achieve.

Speak is a profound meditation on how we relate to one another, and the authenticity of our relationships.

Goodreads rating: 5*.

Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold.  Fame.  Citrus.  The three things that have brought people to California, the setting of Claire Vaye Watkins‘s beautiful and profound novel (published in the UK by Quercus, who provided a review copy).

In Gold Fame Citrus we follow Luz and her partner Ray on a journey through a drought-ravaged and polluted California. They are living in the hollow shell of a Hollywood starlet’s mansion in the Hollywood hills, only emerging to loot or purchase supplies from the black market.  Those who can have left for other parts of the country or have evacuated into refugee camps, and only the dregs of society are left living in California.  Known as Mojavs, they are those without papers, families, contacts or skills, and they exist in a lawless place surviving on emergency rations and limited amounts of water.

Luz and Ray are content to live this way, until they adopt a toddler called Ig during one of the regular gatherings that take place, orgiastic nights of bootleg alcohol, bonfires and dancing.  Ig prompts them to want to evacuate to safety, but on their journey to safety their car breaks down.  Ray goes to get help and is taken by the Red Cross to a resettlement facility, while Luz and Ig are rescued by Levi, a charismatic cult leader living in the heart of the wilderness.

Gold Fame Citrus is a harsh and unrelenting portrait of man’s self-destructive urges, both towards the environment and fellow man.  Whereas Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife places much of the blame for his water-scarce world on the privileged and exploitative corporations, Gold Fame Citrus charts man’s essential inhumanity towards his fellow man, regardless of wealth, status or power.  There are rare flashes of compassion in the novel: Ray’s care for Luz and Luz’s maternal urges towards Ig, but otherwise there is just selfishness and exploitation.  Even Dallas’s care of baby Ig as wet-nurse is motivated by her own grief for the baby she has recently lost.

Luz acts as the exemplar victim of this culture, exploited throughout her life by others.  As a child she was Baby Dunn: the poster-child for the government’s increasingly futile attempts to hold back the impending environmental chaos facing California.  As a teenager she worked as a model, sexually exploited by photographers, objectified and derided for her less than ideal body shape.  Although she finds protection with Ray, her upbringing has turned her into a passive victim.  She is ready to be exploited by Levi, who wants to use her symbolic status as Baby Dunn to publicise his own cause.

But humanity’s behaviour pales in comparison to the brutal forces of nature.  Attempts to hold back the tide of environmental change are futile: the only choice is how to change and adapt to live with it.  Ultimately, Levi’s promise of a way of living in harmony with the Amargosa, the ever-expanding and inhospitable dune sea, proves to be as unfounded and doomed as the nihilistic denial of those living in the ruins of the cities.

Gold Fame Citrus may not be a comfortable novel to read, but it is beautifully written.  The prose sings and the insights are searing.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

I heard Sarah Pinborough read from The Death House at SRFC earlier this year, and I confess I was excited.  It was immediately obvious that she is a very skilled writer and the reading and Q&A she did made me want to read her book.  So I was delighted to win a draw on Goodreads for a copy of the ARC of The Death House, kindly provided by Gollancz.  I was also really pleased when my book club selected it as one of our books (largely because that automatically pushed it up the to be read queue).

But I’m afraid my excitement ended there.

Although Pinborough is clearly a very skilled and talented writer, this is just not a style of book or story that I like, however competently it is written.  The Death House follows a group of teenagers suffering from a terminal condition that is never fully explained.  They are identified as a result of genetic testing and then sequestered away from friends and family in a remote location that is a cross between a boarding school and a hospice.  The novel is a treatment of how we deal with grief, loss and impending mortality, combined with heightened teenage emotion and an at times mawkish sentimentality.  Which is not a mix for me.

I really struggled to connect with any of the characters.  They’re a pretty predictable bunch.  There’s the clever one, who’s a bit geeky and lacks social skills.  The one who’s only function is to die early to reinforce the peril the characters face.  The one from the wrong side of the tracks who is there just to fight with the protagonist, enabling a cathartic release of emotion after which everyone is friends again.  And the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose arrival forces the protagonist to question his assumptions and really experience life for the first time.

Pinborough is an accomplished screenwriter and she writes in the style of a certain school of screenwriting.  You can really see those cinematic beats coming through in her work, but that comes at the expense of rather unexciting characterisation, structure and clockwork plotting.  This was a well-written novel, but it was also one that cantered round some very predictable territory without offering much that was new or interesting to grab one’s attention.

So, while The Death House is probably a good example of what it’s trying to be, and I’ve already acknowledged it’s a style of novel I’m not fond of, it is not a novel I was excited by.  I was, if anything, left feeling rather unsatisfied.  Such a clearly skilled writer ought to be capable of giving us much more than she did in this book.

Goodreads rating: 2*

If Then – Matthew de Abaitua

2015 marks the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign. Matthew de Abaitua uses it as the setting for parts of his new novel If Then (published by Angry Robot, who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley). 

The story follows James and Ruth, two inhabitants of he town of Lewes. A catastrophic economic collapse has created an even wider gap between rich and poor. Increasing mechanisation has rendered most traditional jobs obsolete, leaving many people desperately poor. The residents of Lewes have chosen to sell their bio data in exchange for having their basic needs met by a complex algorithm known as the Process. It allocates tasks and roles to residents, providing worthwhile activity, shelter and food. The residents provide their bio data in exchange, which helps to refine the Process’s algorithms. 

James has a special role within the Process. He acts as the town’s bailiff. Periodically, the Process identifies a list of Lewes residents to be evicted from the town because they are unproductive or are predicted to become troublemakers. As bailiff, James gives up his autonomy to become directly controlled by the Process in a night of ritualised violence that provides a valuable outlet for the town’s feelings of disempowerment. While on patrol one day, James finds an injured WW1 stretcher bearer called Hector.  Hector is an artificial construct, a product of the Process created for an unknown purpose. James takes him into his home in order to help unlock the mystery. 

What follows is a meditation on violence and war. James finds himself working with Hector as a stretcher bearer in an artificial reconstruction of the Gallipoli campaign. Through James’s eyes we see the brutality and senselessness of war. We are forced to reflect on the way modern society normalises war and conflict for the many by concentrating the horror of it in a few. If Then asks us what value we place on people beyond their role as economic units, and whether we would rethink our actions if we were able to truly experience their consequences at first hand. 

Goodreads rating: 3*