Book Review: The Fifth Season

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season has been on my radar since I read her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a couple years back. Every time I was in Powell’s, I’d pick it up and admire the cover, noting its Hugo Award sticker before sliding it back into place on the shelf. I saw that the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2017 and knew I would eventually add these books to my collection. And when Jemisin won her third consecutive Hugo for Best Novel earlier this year with the third and final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, I knew I had to get my hands on these books.

Luckily, the publisher, Orbit, provided some book bloggers with free copies of the books to celebrate Stone Sky‘s historic win. I was given these books in exchange for an honest review; I am not sponsored, nor was I instructed on how to review the books. This review is 100% my personal opinion. And my personal opinion of this book is that it’s amazing.

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The first line, shown at the beginning of this post, immediately caught my attention and flagged this book as a daring enterprise undertaken by an unflinching author. Jemisin employs techniques that would send a writing workshop student back to the drawing board; in her hands, the second-person point of view, the nontraditional sentence structures, and the switching perspectives work alongside the rich worldbuilding and vibrant, flawed characters to create a truly magical work of art. The style of prose in Fifth Season is at once uniquely Jemisin’s and evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work (yes, I know that’s high praise; I mean it). It is literary, it is entertaining, it is agonizingly good.

Despite sharing an inciting incident with a significant number of science fiction and fantasy media (the apocalypse), The Fifth Season never felt overdone, archetypal, reused, or expected. This stunning and imaginative book strikes at the heart of speculative fiction: this is what the genre should be. This is what it is, now. Fifth Season doesn’t redefine the genre so much as clarify it, focus it into a distilled and pure version of itself. It’s everything I want in a spec fic title: interesting magic system, fleshed out characters, explorations of different societal structures, multifaceted sexualities and identities, and more.

The phrase “instant classic” gets thrown around a little too much, in my opinion, but it has never been so true than for this book. I fully believe NK Jemisin is one of the best writers of our time—maybe of all time—and that Fifth Season should be strongly encouraged reading for anyone even marginally interested in speculative fiction. This book is incredible, and I can’t wait to start Obelisk Gate.

If I had to nitpick, my one criticism would be that some character detail is a little sparse; the point-of-view characters don’t get too much time devoted to their appearances, whereas many side characters get full descriptions. But it’s such a minor detail overshadowed by my overwhelmingly positive feelings toward this book that it doesn’t matter.

I’d give this book a thousand gold stars if I could, but a perfect 5/5 will have to do.

Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1

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I’ll admit it: I picked up Monstress after hearing about Marjorie Liu’s historic Eisner Award for Best Writer. I hadn’t heard much about the comic before that, if at all. The comics world is mostly unfamiliar to me. Previous to Monstress, the only western comic I’d read in recent years was The Wicked + The Divine (which will probably get its own review in due time). And honestly, I regret being absent from the comics sphere. If I’d been more involved, I might have read Monstress sooner. There’s a reason, I discovered, that it swept the 2018 Eisner Awards and also took home two Hugos this year.

Monstress, Volume 1 throws you into a new and unfamiliar world and takes few pains to explain it to you. The main character, Maika, is an Arcanic, a race of people with somewhat magical abilities and often inhuman physical traits. Within the opening pages, she is bought as a slave for an organization called the Cumaea, which resides in a walled, steampunk-like city. We learn of the world’s history slowly—sometimes through dialogue, other times through bonus content. The world is replete with witches, talking cats, demons, a blend of magic and science, and flashbacks of war.

Maika is one of the most angry, vengeful characters I’ve encountered—and she has good reason to be. Between the literal torture of her people, her deceased mother, and the betrayal of her closest friends, Maika will stop at nothing to get revenge. Ultimately, the plot of Monstress revolves around Maika’s anger and her attempts to recover from it. The series is grimdark and without levity aside from a few sarcastic quips. The characters are distinct and complex, and the majority of both the protagonists and antagonists are women (many of whom are nonwhite). If I had to direct a writer or reader to an example of a diverse, predominately female cast where each character has rich character development and differing personalities, this would be the first book that comes to mind. Maika herself is extremely well characterized and somehow likeable despite—or perhaps because of—her feistiness, her headstrong attitude, and her rage.

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A page from Monstress, Issue 1. Maika, the protagonist, wields a flamethrower.

Sana Takeda’s art style is an alluring blend of Western comics with Eastern manga, and I couldn’t look away. Every panel contains intricate detail and complex coloring, most often with a dark, blue- or purple-based palette. Takeda’s style strikes a delicate balance between beautiful and menacing. I’m almost disappointed that I bought the first volume instead of the individual issues; the covers on the issues are gorgeous enough to frame.

Still, despite the wondrous characters, magnetic art, and intriguing story, I found the pace at which information about the world and various characters’ backstories to be a bit slow. I also have mixed feelings about the use of end material to explain various aspects of the world with characters in a “classroom” setting. I felt like I missed a lot of worldbuilding details on my first read and will likely read it again not too long from now. But even though the worldbuilding wasn’t exactly to my tastes, I can’t help but give Monstress, Volume 1 4.5/5 stars. It’s simply an amazing book, and anyone looking for grimdark literature should give Monstress a read. I can’t wait to read the next volume.

Book Review: This Mortal Coil

I never called myself a sci-fi person. I didn’t watch Star Wars or Star Trek as a kid, didn’t get into Metroid Prime or War of the Worlds. I was much more taken with fantasy. When it gets right down to it, I suppose I just liked magic as a plot element more than technology.

But. I read This Mortal Coil, a YA science fiction debut, last week. And I was floored.

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Author Emily Suvada uses her extensive knowledge of biology, coding, chemistry, and genetics to craft a not-so-far future world in This Mortal Coil. Catarina is a hacker and geneticist, living alone in the woods after a horrifying virus has killed a majority of the North American population. The only geneticist who could have hoped to make a vaccine for the disease—Cat’s father—was kidnapped and then killed. The virus is airborne, and the only way to become immune is to eat the flesh of an infected individual. (I’m not sure how the science checks out here, but it’s kind of cool? Like reverse zombies.)

But that’s not the worst part! The worst part is—wait, look at the book cover. Can you guess what I’m going to say? The worst part is, the virus turns infected individuals into time bombs. They eventually explode into a gruesome cloud of red mist, spreading the virus (it’s airborne, remember?) to any nearby unfortunates. It’s horrifying, it’s disgusting, and it’s so good.

It’s been a while since I’ve run the YA circuit, so I’m a little behind on the popular tropes and trends. For what it’s worth, though, I can’t remember the last time I saw a character like Cat front and center. She’s intelligent, geeky, unashamedly talented, quick on her feet, and full of grit. And sometimes she fails. I found her realistic and inspiring, and I hope teenage girls—especially those interested in pursuing STEM careers—look up to her as a role model.

This Mortal Coil is 415 pages of fast-paced, relentless plot twists and high-tension scenes. I was completely sucked in, breathless, and read it in full over the course of a single day. When I finished, I wanted to read it all over again. I’m known to reread books, but never on repeat, so to speak—it was a new experience for me.

The fun doesn’t stop when you finish reading, though. Suvada has crafted an engaging social media platform on Twitter and her website. And she’s left secrets for her dedicated fans. In the book, Cat finds a sequence of DNA in a mutated pigeon that looks like a poem. She doesn’t decode the full thing, but the entire poem is in the back of the book, ready for inquiring minds to crack. The poem isn’t the only thing you can decode, by the way….You’ll have to find the other secrets for yourself!

A fantastic debut, This Mortal Coil will surely be heralded as a YA sci-fi classic in the years to come. Book 2 is already in the works! Buy This Mortal Coil at Powell’s or on Amazon.

Awesome. Original. Stunning. And yes, “unputdownable.” 5/5

Book Review: A Practical Guide to Evil

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Several months ago, my husband “ran out of books to read” and was recommended an online serial, or web fiction, called A Practical Guide to Evil. At the time, there were two complete books online and the beginnings of a third. My husband started reading it and instantly fell in love. He recommended it to me on multiple occasions; even when I was buried in schoolbooks to read, he would say, “Why don’t you just read the prologue? It’s not too long. You’ll love it.” I resisted until this weekend.

And I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Practical Guide is told from the villains’ perspective, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise or make apologies. Within the first chapters, it becomes abundantly clear that the main character, Catherine, will stop at nothing to achieve her goals—even if it means killing in cold blood or betraying her partners. But despite her evil actions, Catherine is likeable. She’s witty, cunning, straighforward when she needs to be and duplcitious when she doesn’t. She may have a ferocious, backstabbing, manipulative exterior, but she tells herself it’s all to free her homeland—and we believe her. We accept her twisted motives because we see the Heroes, and they don’t look so different. Practical Guide wants its readers to struggle, to wonder about the nature of Good and Evil.

In addition to the refreshing take on the classic hero’s tale, Practical Guide has an interesting magic system. The world is low-magic, with only a few individuals possessing powers, given to them by Names and Roles. Basically, Practical Guide‘s magic is based on achetypes, and shamelessly so. People can take on Roles, like Warlock, Captain, Ranger, Scribe, Empress… And they will learn magic based on the Role. Every person who comes into a Role has slightly different magic, so no two are exactly alike, but you can bet that everyone named Empress has been, well, the Empress.

So, the premise is good, the magic is good, the characters grow on you—what’s not to like? Here we get into the thorny side of web fic. From what my husband has told me, many web fics are published without any real editing (e.g. there are obvious typos). Practical Guide is sadly no exception. Every chapter has typos, phrases that could be omitted with no affect on the meaning of the sentence or paragraph; the story as a whole has a bad case of info-dumping and formatting issues. One character is referred to by alternating pronouns the first time he’s introduced (after his introduction, he goes by male pronouns only), and another character was renamed after her introduction—that, or there were so many new characters at once that I lost track of people. This book would never be on bookshelves in its current form.

But that’s a hidden truth to publishing. The book you buy at the store looks nothing like its first, second, third, tenth draft. The most important thing when acquiring a book is to look past its typos and peer into its heart, find its voice. Practical Guide has that voice, that nameless thing that keeps readers up at night, gripping their paperback (or phone, as the case may be) until the action subsides. I blazed through the first book of Practical Guide in just a few days and overlooked the typos and formatting issues because the story was simply too good to ignore.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually read it during the day, for once; that’s not an easy feat, as lately, I’ve been reading solely before bed. I’m so glad I took my husband’s word and gave this web fic a chance. You might enjoy it, too. So have at it.

2/5 for editing & design, 5/5 for everything else.

Good Teachers Make Good Students

From fifth grade to seventh grade, I was a horrible student. I routinely received Cs in science, English, and math classes (strangely enough, those are the classes I enjoyed most in high school and beyond). I rarely did homework, and when I did, it was late or incomplete. Teachers eventually stopped giving me feedback, advice, or support. At the end of seventh grade, when all of my friends were on the honor roll (in other words, they got a 3.0 GPA or higher), I decided that I wanted to be on the honor roll, too. So I put (some) effort into my studies as an eighth grader. I don’t think I ever made it on the honor roll, though. I just wasn’t a good student.

But in high school, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I was one of the best students. I did my homework. I spoke up in class. I was on the honor roll every term; in fact, most terms I had a 4.0. And I wasn’t taking easy classes! I had a full load of AP courses my senior year and I still got As. Me: the girl who, four years prior, struggled to achieve a B average.

I’m not 100% sure why I changed. My middle school wasn’t harder than my high school, and my intellect didn’t make a huge jump between eighth and ninth grade. But, there’s at least one definite factor that changed my behavior and turned me into an overachiever: the teachers.

My grade school teachers saw in me a girl of average intelligence who couldn’t be bothered to do anything. They saw my tardy homeworks and said, “Well, our only option is to tell her to do her work.” As I recall, they didn’t really try to understand why I didn’t do my homework. Or, if they did try, they eventually gave up. Something wasn’t clicking for me in middle school. I took no joy in learning.

But then I started ninth grade. The teachers were young, passionate, enthusiastic, and empathetic. They wanted to know me. They wanted to teach. And they expected positive results. Between their infectious love of learning and their encouragement to participate in class, the “something” finally clicked for me. I grew to love school. I woke up early to prepare for the day instead of sleeping until the very last second. I can’t remember a time I was late to class, let alone late on a homework assignment. I became a class leader, a student who could be counted on to contribute to class discussions and help others.

Maybe that was another factor. I liked my classmates in high school way more than I did in middle school. I made better friends. People actually talked to me, got to know me. I genuinely cared about my teachers and classmates. At high school, there was a support system that just didn’t exist in middle school. My high school teachers cared about me in a way my middle school teachers did not. 

Some people might look at my accomplishments and argue that I’ve always had the capacity for success—that high school didn’t change me. But of course it did; everything else in my life remained the same. High school was the catalyst that righted my path, that gave me the tools to open doors and achieve success. I’ll be forever grateful to those bright-eyed teachers who sacrificed their sleep, their weekends, and often their well-being to deliver quality education to students like me.

Women Supporting Women

It’s been hot in Portland for about a week now. Last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were all over 100 degrees. We bought a “portable” AC unit from Amazon just to survive this dry stretch. Most houses in Portland don’t have air conditioning, and it’s not a difficult decision to rationalize. Why would you need AC when it rains half the time and hardly ever gets up to ninety degrees? Well, in the past month, we’ve had sixteen ninety-plus degree days. It’s been rough.

Our AC unit doesn’t quite cut it; we installed it in our office upstairs, and while it works great in that room, it doesn’t do anything for the house. I needed a break from the heat—and several of my friends felt the same way. We planned a day trip to Moulton Falls in Washington, hoping to cool off in a relatively unpopulated and relaxing swimming hole.

In a perfect example of doublethink/lying to myself, I put on my swimsuit that morning while completely disbelieving I would go swimming. I’m extremely self-conscious, and I was unenthused about displaying my swimsuit-clad body for the world to see, so I tricked myself into thinking I wouldn’t actually use it—that I was putting it on “just in case.” Because, of course, going to a swimming hole doesn’t mean you’ll swim.

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Moulton Falls. Photo cred to Lisa Hein. Check out her Instagram: lisahein

We drove to Moulton Falls and had a lovely picnic. The five of us brought enough food for ten people. After cleaning up, the others started putting on sunscreen. I hesitated. But—we’re not really swimming, I protested. But I knew I was deceiving myself. I inwardly groaned and accepted my fate.

I put the sunscreen on. I waited as long as possible before taking off my shorts and t-shirt, hoping none of the others would notice my razor burn, my flab, and all the other small, inconsequential flaws of my perfectly functional body. I waited for someone to say something about my appearance. I was so sure one of them would notice all of the things I disliked about my body. But if they did, they didn’t say anything.

In fact, the opposite happened.

One of them grinned at me and said, “I love your swimsuit! It’s so cute. One-pieces are coming back.” I returned the smile, comforted yet still on guard. It was only a matter of time, surely, before someone gave me a too-quick glance or recoiled when I sat next to them. But as we made our way to the water and found some rocks to sit on, the negative reactions I had expected refused to manifest. The girls had every opportunity to comment on my appearance, but their words were only positive. It wasn’t an endless torrent of compliments, but it was enough for me to feel comfortable with my body and do what we had come to Moulton Falls to do: relax.

The water ran mountain-cold over the rocks. We alternated between swimming and sunbathing, talking about books and TV shows and school and work. We picked pebbles from the riverbank and drove home with the windows down. It was, unexpectedly, the most fun I’d had outdoors in a long time.

I was surprised to receive such supportive and loving words from my friends. Growing up, I watched TV shows and read books where female friendships were infrequently shown. The books that did show female friendships portrayed them with a dose of cattiness, and my own friend groups throughout the years followed suit. But the women I swam with at Moulton Falls broke the mold. For a few blissful hours, there was no cattiness, no competition, no parade—just five women in swimsuits, enjoying an outdoor adventure on their day off.

Our bodies are imperfect, but it doesn’t matter. We are so much more than our stretchmarks, our moles, our cellulite, our messy hair. There’s so much more to love.

Book Review: Three Parts Dead

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One of my professors is a SFF agent, and he recommended Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence to me. The Craft Sequence is a series of (currently) six books that all take place in the same world, but featuring different characters and locations. One of the interesting aspects of the series is that the first five books (and maybe the sixth as well—I don’t know much about it) weren’t published in sequential order. Three Parts Dead was the first book to be published, but in the timeline of Gladstone’s world, it’s the third book, hence the ordinal “third” in the title.

I asked my professor over Twitter whether to read the books in publication order or in temporal order. He suggested reading them in pub order, as that was how Gladstone intended for the audience to experience his world. So I took his suggestion and dove right into Three Parts Dead, and let me tell you: it was a wild adventure.

Three Parts Dead opens with a clinching first line: “God wasn’t answering tonight.” The rest of the book is similarly enthralling, with fully-fleshed characters and a complex world. By the end of the first chapter, Tara, the main character, has been kicked out of the Hidden Schools, nearly died after drinking a desert oasis dry, dug graves and raised zombies, and weilded a blade of moonlight. Actually, that’s only the first half of the first chapter.

I enjoyed the relentless pace and the diverse cast of characters. The plot was intriguing and not so easy to predict. The book’s downfall, in my opinion, is the relatively short explanation of the world’s magic, or Craft. I garnered that it’s a taught thing, and not many people can use it, but what is it exactly? Tara uses her craft in a variety of different ways—trying to explain them here would only be confusing. It seems that Craft can be a weapon, and also a tool: everything is connected with Craft, and the ties between things can be manipulated and used. But it’s a little difficult for me to understand. (That said, I did read the majority of this book right before sleep, so that may have affected my comprehension.)

At 330 pages, Three Parts Dead can be read rather quickly. Its length combined with its pace result in a quick read. Most of the fantasy I read could be considered epic in length, and this novel was a refreshing change. I might classify this book as a science fantasy, actually; while there is magic, technological progress hasn’t abated. The mix of technology and magic confused me at first but I grew to enjoy it. In all, Three Parts Dead was an enjoyable introduction to Gladstone’s world, and I’m excited to see how his series pans out. 4/5 stars.