How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Lacklustre and monotonous, not only did How High We Go in the Dark fail to grip my attention but it also failed to elicit an emotional response on my part. It was a bland and repetitive affair, which is a pity given the hype around it. It didn’t help that a few weeks ago I read another ‘Cloud Atlas-esque’ novel. And while I didn’t fall head over heels in love with To Paradise, I cannot deny that Yanagihara’s prose is superb. Here instead…Sequoia Nagamatsu’s prose brings to mind the word turgid (examples: “Moles and freckles dance around your belly button like a Jackson Pollock painting, and I fight the urge to grab a marker and find a way to connect them into a Tibetan mandala, as if that would unlock some secret about who you were and what, if anything, I really meant to you.” and “your ass the shade of a stray plum spoiling behind a produce stand”).
Additionally, to compare this to the work of Emily St. John Mandel seems misleading, as How High We Go in the Dark lacks the atmosphere and subtlety that characterizes her books (and this is coming from someone who isn’t a devoted fan of hers). Anyway, even if I were to consider How High We Go in the Dark on its own merits, well, the verdict isn’t good. While this is by no means the worst novel I’ve read, it has been a while since I’ve been confronted with a novel that is so consistently and thoroughly mediocre. I will likely forget about ever having read this in a few days. Already I struggle to remember most of its stories (let alone its characters).
Even if I was tempted early on to DNF this, I kept on reading hoping that the next story/chapter would deliver something more substantial than its predecessor but no such thing happened. I guess I could say that it was ambitious? I mean, it doesn’t pull off what it’d set out to do but at least it had aimed high? Of course, as we know, if you aim too high you end up crashing down (a la Icarus).
Ugh, I’m really trying to think of some positives to say about How High We Go in the Dark but it seems that I have nothing good to say about it other than it has an ambitious premise (whether it actually delivers on its premise is up to debate…). I guess, I like the book cover…not sure if that counts as a ‘positive’…

So, to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect: How High We Go in the Dark takes place during and after 2030. A lot of the population is decimated by the Arctic plague which is unleashed onto the world after some scientists ‘stumble’ upon the thirty-thousand-year-old remains of a girl. Additionally to the plague climate/environmental disasters are causing further chaos. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story. While some characters, we learn, are connected, or even related, to each other, these stories ultimately fail to come truly together. By the end, what we have isn’t a tapestry but a series of samey fragments that don’t really succeed in bringing to life the characters or relationships they are supposedly focused on. Out of 14 stories only 4 are centred on female characters. If the characters we are reading of are shown to be in romantic and or sexual relationships, these will be painfully heteronormative ones. It seems that Nagamatsu’s vision of the future has no place for the gays, let alone for those who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth. That we get so few female voices also pissed me off. Like, come on, 4 out of 14?

Anyhow, the first two stories actually held some promise. In the first one, we follow a scientist whose daughter, also a scientist, died while ‘unearthing’ of the thirty-thousand-year-old human remains. This father goes to Siberia to resume his daughter’s work. Here we hear the first echoes of the plague: after these remains are found the facility goes under quarantine. Like the majority of the stories in this novel, this first one is all about parents & their children. There is the dynamic between the narrator and his now-dead daughter as well as reflections on his daughter’s (non)parenting of his granddaughter.
The following one, ‘City of Laughter’, almost succeeds in being memorable but ends up falling similarly short. The central character is once again a bland and inoffensive man, just an average Joe who is only slightly interesting because of his job. This guy works at a euthanasia park. The plague initially affects children and those with vulnerable immune systems (i think? we never gain an entire picture of this plague so what do i know) so some governor proposes the construction of “an amusement park that could gently end children’s pain—roller coasters capable of lulling their passengers into unconsciousness before stopping their hearts”. The main guy falls in love with a woman who is there with her son. The juxtaposition between the amusement park setting and the true purpose of this ‘park’ does give this story an air of tragicomedy (at one point a distraught and grief-stricken parent hugs our protagonist who is wearing a furry animal costume).
The following stories are harder to set apart from each other. There is one with a scientist/lab-person who has lost his son to the plague. He ends up forming a father-son bond with a talking pig whose organs will be used to save/help those with the plague (once again, i don’t entirely remember because it wasn’t made very clear). You would think that the talking pig storyline would be far from boring but you’d be wrong. That this ‘son-figure’ is a pig is a mere gimmick. The pig could have been a monkey or a doll or a robot. I would have preferred for the pig to be more of a pig. This story has even the gall THE Pig movie (with the scientist telling the pig: ‘that’ll do’). Anyway, once again the author explores this, by now, rather tired parent-child dynamic: what does it mean to be a good parent? Do you protect your child from the harsh realities of their world? Maybe if he would have allowed for more subtlety in his storytelling and character interactions, maybe then I could have felt more connected to the parents and their children. But that wasn’t the case. The conflict is made so obvious, that there is little room for interpretation or even nuance.

We have a couple of stories where boring men fall for boring women and vice-versa (here the writing veers into the overwrought). Some do so online, but the author doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the VR experience. I mean, if anything, these VR-focused ones read like subpar Black Mirror episodes. Social media goes largely unmentioned…
We then have quite a few that go on about new funerary traditions because apparently so many people have died of the plague and cemeteries cannot contain so many bodies. Here Nagamatsu tries to be inventive but I found the idea of funeral hotels and funerary towers rather, eeh, underwhelming? Even that one chapter that follows a spaceship on its way to make a new Earth failed to be interesting. There are two chapters that try to subvert things: one is intentionally disorientating in that the narrator and some other people are someplace else, another one tries to tie things back to the 1st chapter, to give this novel an overarching story, but t it just came across as jarring.

I don’t understand why the author chose 2030 as his starting point. The future he envisions feels generic and wishy-washy. There are self-driving vehicles (i think?) planet earth is dying, and this plague is decimating the human race. How refreshing. Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction but the sci-fi & dystopian elements of How High We Go in the Dark felt tame, vanilla even. Been there, done that kind of thing. While Nagamatsu strives to achieve that quiet realism that characterizes the dystopian novels of authors such as Mandel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ling Ma, he misses the mark. Tone-wise too these stories seem lacking, especially if I were to compare them with the unsettling work of John Wyndham. In addition, the future he envisions pales in comparison to the ones you can find in the stories penned by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout my reading experience of How High We Go in the Dark I just kept being reminded of better speculative books & films.

Almost all of the narrators sounded exactly like the same dude. Which was odd given that these characters are meant to be at different stages of their lives. Additionally, it seemed sus that all of the characters used the same vocabulary, articulated themselves in identical ways, and they all shared a love for ‘vintage’ music (we have the Beatles, Patti Smith, The Strokes, Smashing Pumpkin, Siouxsie and the Banshees). The story is set in 2030. The characters are in their 20s, 30s, possibly early 40s. Yet, they all came across as belonging to the same generation. While I know that the whole idea of there being different generations is somewhat reductive, you can admit that people who are born in the same time ‘periods’ and in the same countries (the majority of the characters are Japanese American and live in America) share certain experiences/similarities. Here, none of the characters came across as believable older millennials or gen-zers. The popular media that is mentioned too was ‘old’. Why not then set your Artic Plague during the 90s or early 2000s something? It would have been made for a far more convincing setting. At least then the characters (from their worldview to their vernacular) would have not felt so out-of-place (come on, these guys do not sound like they are born in the 2000s).

The parent-child conflict that was at the heart of so many of these stories was cheesy af. We have a parent trying to connect to their child. The child is like, NERD. Okay, I’m joking but still, you get the gist. The children are grieving and confused, the parents are grieving and confused. Yet, what could have been a touching book about human connection reads like a parody, starring difficult children who wear headphones 24/7 and answer back because of teenage angst, and emotionally repressed parents who happen to be scientists and because of this, they are cold and clinical. On that note, there is one character who is not a scientist and is in fact ‘an artist’ and her art was beyond ridiculous (it gave me the impression that the person who had created said character had only a vague and clichéd idea of the kind of person that goes on to become a painter).
This book is full of grieving people, which should elicit some sort of reaction from me but nada. Nothing. My uncle and grandfather died respectively in November and December. I was unable to attend one of the funerals due to travel restrictions. The other died soon after testing positive for covid. Surely a book about losing your loved ones to a pandemic should hit close to home….except that it didn’t. I felt at a remove from the characters who were often defined by their job and or whether they had children.

The world-building, as mentioned above, was full of lacunae. Some of the gaps in the world-building seemed intentional as if to provide us with too much information on the plague and the state of the world during and after it would take away from the ‘human’ relationships and the existential quandaries experienced by the characters….but still, I could not envision this future nor could I bring myself to believe in it. One of the stories seems to suggest a lack of resources but later on, this doesn’t seem the case. I also found it hard to believe that the relatives of those who could easily be seen as culpable of this whole plague (the wife and granddaughter of that first scientist) would be allowed to go off to Earth 2.0 (as far as i can recall of course, maybe the narrative does address this…).

Choppy and repetitive, How High We Go in the Dark is a rather subpar novel. I would have almost preferred it if had just been your bog-standard speculative fiction book but no, this one aims higher and it shows (not in a good way). The dystopian elements are gimmicky and given our current pandemic…derivative (apparently the author wrote this before covid but i am reading it now so..).
The writing vacillated from decent to unintentionally hilarious to plain bad (“Aki still avoided speaking to me when he could avoid it.”…this book had an editor? really?!). We get a few clumsy attempts at the 2nd person which were…the less said about them the better actually. Nagamatsu’s prose was not my cup of tea.

This was not the genre-bending novel I was hoping for. The supposedly interwoven storylines did not feel particularly ‘interwoven’. There are characters who are mentioned in more than one chapter, or we read of someone who is close to a character we previously encountered but that’s about it. These chapters and characters failed to come together in any meaningful way.

Anyway, just because I thought this was an exceedingly bland affair does not mean in any way that you will feel the same way. If you loved this, I am happy for you. At least one of us was able to enjoy this book.
If you are interested in this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.



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The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

 

 

 

The cover for this book is goals…its contents not so much. I found this novel to be an odd melange of confusing and simple. The characters came across as flat (little more than names on a page), the world-building, although at first promising, ultimately struck me as patchy, and the storyline and twists were just not up my street. Still, I know that quite a lot of people are looking forward to this novel so I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews, as this may as well be one of those ‘it’s not it’s me’ cases.

The novel follows two sisters, the older one, Cee, has been stranded on an island for the past three years, while the younger one, Kasey, lives in one of the few existing eco-cities and is trying to make sense of Cee’s disappearance. Climate and environmental disasters have made eco-cities refuges for humanity. Of course, not everyone is allowed entrance in eco-cities, and in spite of their utopian promises, eco-cities’ such as Kasey’s are incredibly classists (people are ‘ranked, the cities themselves have stratified structure and those who live in the lower stratums lead less privileged lifestyles than those on ‘top’). Although much of Kasey and Cee’s world remains largely unexplored we do get some details about life in their eco-city. For example, we learn that ‘holoing’ is a green alternative which allows the citizens of the eco-city to conduct ‘nonessential activities’ in the holographic mode. There is also Intraface which allows its users to capture their memories as well as apps which can ‘adjust’ a person’s serotonin levels. Kasey, who is a very logical person and who makes sense of the world around her through a scientific lens, finds herself, somewhat uncharacteristically one could say, trying to find what happened to her sister, even if she’s convinced that Cee is dead.
Meanwhile, Cee has been trying to leave the island she woke up on. She desperately wants to be reunited with Kasey, and is prepared to risk her life in her attempt to build a raft/boat that will allow her to set forth into the ocean. Cee recollects very little about her former life and seems to have entirely forgotten about the existence of the eco-city or the rest of the world. All she knows is that she has to find her sister.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (minor-spoilers below):

→the writing itself. Cee’s sections are narrated in the 1st person, Kasey’s in the 3rd. Something switching between perspectives can enhance a story (as with Red at the Bone, Everything Here is Beautiful, The Travelers, or anything by N. K. Jemisin), but, more often than not, is unnecessary. Kasey remains remote, which is perhaps intentional, after all, the author goes above and beyond in order to emphasise how ‘cold’ and ‘detached’ and ‘Not Like Other People’ she is (it seemed weird that the possibility of her being neurodivergent was never raised or discussed considering how technologically advanced these eco-cities are—for example, if someone feels upset they can locate the source of that feeling, be it a memory or whatnot). Yet, on the other hand, being in Cee’s head didn’t do all that much for her character either. She doesn’t know a lot, her inner monologue consists mostly of what she observes (the island, the ocean, the rocks, the sand, her shack, her robot helper). When the boy arrives her mind is mostly occupied with thoughts of him. Cee’s sections also included some really purply phrases (her thoughts ‘jellify’, she feels the ‘muchness’ and ‘littleness’). Although the writing was for the most part okay, there were a few too many clichéd phrases (“Sometimes [she] felt like a stranger in her own skin”, “[she] did not belong–here or anywhere”) and even the dialogues were full of platitudes and done to death lines such as “What could we achieve, if we worked together?”
→the world-building left too much unexplored. There was so much that did not make sense or did not convince me and yet, I was supposed to just buy into it? The few half-delivered explanations we get did little in terms of answering my questions or making sense.
→the characters….Cee and Kasey are the classic YA sisters. One is attractive, charming, everyone loves her. The other is quiet, logical, not driven by her feelings but by FACTS, and she just does not ‘fit in’. I felt nothing for them, which sounds harsh, but it is the truth. They were painfully one-dimensional, and, the longer I read, the less I believed in them. Not only is this kind of dynamic old but I just did not feel that Kasey and Cee’s relationship was particularly nuanced. They also seemed to have no thoughts about their childhood, their parents (the dad is meant to be this powerful big guy but because he is 99% of the time off-page…well, he was pretty superfluous).
→insta-love, of the worst kind. The whole love storyline did not work for me. There are some dodgy scenes that would have definitely not been included if we were to reverse the characters’ genders (and I was not a fan of those scenes).
→plot…it has its twists, I will give it that. But I just could not bring myself to believe in Kasey’s arc (that they would just let her do what she wanted).
→the themes had potential but He sacrifices potentially interesting conversations/scenes that touch upon ethics & morality in favour of drama.

Sadly, the novel had very little to offer me. By the end of the novel (around the 80% mark) I was so bored and irritated by what I was reading that I ended up skim-reading the rest. There were too many lacunae (in both the world-building and storyline) and I never felt engaged by the characters or the author’s style. I was hoping for something more compelling, and yes, the comparison to Ghibli definitely feels misleading.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Klara and the Sun presents its readers with a quiet yet touching meditation on life. In a similar fashion as Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into the speculative realm is deeply grounded in the mundane. Yet, in spite of its ordinary trappings, Klara and the Sun is a work that is brimming with ambiguities. Ishiguro excels at this type of narrative, ones in which ordinary scenes and interactions are interrupted by moments of unquiet. The near future of Klara and the Sun comes to us slowly, and even in the end, much of it remains unknown to us.
Our narrator Klara, an Artificial Friend, an android whose primary function is that of providing companionship to children. From the confines of her store, Klara has but a limited view of the outside world. Through the store window, she watches passersby, taking notice of their behaviors, appearances, the emotions they seem to manifest. Klara reveres the Sun, which every day provides her with ‘nourishment’.

Klara is purchased as an AF for Josie, a girl afflicted by an unnamed illness. In her new home, Klara learns more about people and their incongruities. Klara’s purpose is to be there for Josie, but, even she cannot seem to be of any help when it comes to Josie’s illness. Josie, who lives with her mother (who Klara refers to as ‘the mother’) and their somewhat brusque housekeeper (‘Melania housekeeper’). As time goes by, through Klara, we learn more about this near future. There are communities of post-employed, there are lifted and unlifted children, and both Josie and ‘the mother’ seem to have mysterious ‘plans’ up their sleeves.

Klara’s child-like narration belies her unsettling reality. From the way children treat their companions, to the lengths parents will go to provide their children with the best chance at succeeding in life, the world Klara witnesses is far from reassuring.
In spite of its domestic setting, which takes us from the kitchen to the living room, and with the occasional foray into the outside, Ishiguro explores questions of love, freedom, and memory. And, of course, humanity. What makes us human? What makes me, me?

Ishiguro provides no easy answers or solutions, depicting instead the different ways Klara and those around react to the same worries and fears. Klara is often a witness to crucial exchanges. Yet, her passive role does not mean that she is unable to understand a certain situation/conversation or the motivations and emotions of those involved.
The simplicity, one could even say purity, of her voice might annoy some readers, especially those who are looking for more complex or ambivalent narrators. Still, I grew quite fond of her, and there were many instances in which she struck me as more human than the actual humans.
One thing that I am unsure of is why Klara—who usually does not describe the physical appearance of others—noticed, in two different instances, that one of the people in her vicinity was Black. As far as I can remember, she does not comment on anyone else’s race or ethnicity (we learn that Melania is European through her accented English and another mother making a comment about European housekeepers). Klara guesses Josie’s friend’s accent but only after talking to him. So why would an android who usually does not describe those around her as white or would notice that someone is Black? Was this Ishiguro pointing to this:
<a is="" href="https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/08/rise-of-the-racist-robots-how-ai-is-learning-all-our-worst-impulses
? Or that Klara was designed after a white person or to have a white person’s perspective? Otherwise it just seems odd.

There were also certain plot points that felt a bit too neat, especially towards the end. And while I am always appreciative of Ishiguro’s prose, of his ability to capture ephemeral emotions and thoughts, of the ambiguous nature of his stories, I found myself wishing for more. Josie, alongside her mother and neighbors, never earned their way into my heart. That is to say, I felt at a distance from them. The tension between them was certainly palpable and well rendered but, ultimately, I found them somewhat dull.
Although I wasn’t blown away by this novel I did overall enjoy it. Klara is the novel’s star, and I found her to be a deeply compelling protagonist who challenged my notions of ‘human’.
Readers who prefer faster-paced narratives may want to give this one a large berth but if you were a fan of Never Let Me Go you might find this to be just as gripping (I, for one, finished in less than 24 hours).

re-read: ishiguro’s surreal realism is lulling indeed. some of the dialogues may sound slightly off but, given the dystopianesque setting, i didn’t particularly mind. josie was annoying as fck, and i get that she’s sick however that doesn’t entirely exonerate her from her shtty behaviour. melania teetered on being rather stereotypical, and i am a bit tired of british/american authors (or authors who write in english) who throw into their story mix a character, often in the form of a brusque older woman, from an unspecified ‘eastern european’ country as a source of humor because their english is (supposedly) ‘funny’ and their un-english ways are (supposedly) just as ‘funny’.
this aside, i still found this to be a thought-provoking read that gives way to questions about human nature, freedom, and altruism. ishiguro also incorporates many discussions and scenarios about the difficulties of parenting and of being parented (with the children having often no choice in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, or being kept in the dark about matters that directly concern them).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Three years after I purchased my copy of The Stone Sky I finally got round to reading it. I’m not sure why it took me so long but I thought it best to re-read the first two instalments before approaching its final chapter. As I loved re-reading The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate I was ready to fall just as hard for The Stone Sky…but I didn’t.
The thing is, the pacing and direction of the story closely resemble those of The Obelisk Gate which I probably wouldn’t have minded if Nassun had actually developed as a character. Essun has very few chapters compared to the first two volumes and I missed her. I would have loved to read more of her and Tonkee or her and Ykka but their scenes make up very little of the overall narrative. While Jemisin tries to give Schaffa a sort of redemption arc I could not bring myself to like or sympathise with him. Nassun got on my nerves, especially when it comes to how obstinate she becomes towards the end. While she seems capable of caring for murderous men her resentment towards her mother struck me as unfair and childish (especially if we consider some of what her mother has gone through). While I was interested in Hoa’s chapters, especially since they give us a lot of information regarding the Stillness prior the seasons. I am not sure whether I always understood what was going in his chapter, especially given the nature of his narrative voice.
As finales go The Stone Sky suffers from anticlimax. The pace is slow, the characters don’t develop all that much, and the storyline needed more cathartic scenes. Still, Jemisin sure can write, and her style always manages to capture my attention (even when her story doesn’t).
While I am not sure whether I would re-read the whole trilogy I still consider The Fifth Season to be one of the best fantasy/spec fiction novels of all time and I will probably never tire of re-reading it.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

“Alas: in the Stillness, destroying mountains is as easy as an orogene toddler’s temper tantrum. Destroying a people takes only a bit more effort.”

Now this is how you write a sequel.
Jemisin has done it again. This series is simply spectacular.

“It’s not hate that you’re seeing. Hate requires emotion. What this woman has simply done is realize you are a rogga, and decide that you aren’t a person, just like that. Indifference is worse than hate.”

The Obelisk Gate picks up where The Fifth Season ended. After having lost her daughter’s ‘trace’ Essun, alongside her traveling companions, stays is in Castrima, an underground comm. Here she is reunited with Alabaster who has a task for her. However, his failing health and their strained relationship further complicate things. The comm’s headwoman is an orogene, Ykka, tries her hardest to make her comm safe and a place in which orogenes and stills can coexist peacefully. Threats from the outside however create discord among Castrima’s residents, risking a divide between orogenes and stills. Essun’s presence does not help matters as she is an extremely powerful orogene who is dealing with some serious trauma.

While The Fifth Season is more of an epic edge-of-your-seat fantasy, The Obelisk Gate is much more of a slow-burn. Jemisin expands the world she established in the first instalment and offers perspectives outside of Essun’s. We get chapters following Nassun, Essun’s ‘lost’ daughter, and Schaffa, Essun’s former Guardian. Although I certainly felt sympathetic towards Nassun, she also frustrated the hell out of me as she was willing to love two violent men but not her mother (or at least, she often professes that she resents her mother for having trained her incessantly). Still, the sections that focus on Nassun and Schaffa certainly present readers with a lot food for thought. Nassun’s devotion to her father, in spite of the fact that he murdered her younger brother, and to Schaffa are sadly all too believable. Her father’s repulsion and hatred towards orogene also calls to mind our world’s hatred towards the ‘other’.

Jemisin is a wordsmith and her prose has me in her thrall. Her dialogues not only ring true to life (in spite of the story’s fantastical setting) but they convey a scene’s atmosphere (tension, sadness, unrest). Jemisin’s narration is clever and always manages to surprise me. I love her fast-paced sequences in which characters are fighting for their lives or using their powers, and the slower-speed ones in which characters are talking about the past or the future or their feelings. Her writing style is utterly captivating. It can be playful or direct, descriptive and sophisticated or urgent and impressionistic (with fragmented sentences that perfectly capture a character’s trauma or fear). You cannot not pay attention to her words.

My review cannot really do justice to what Jemisin has created. This series has an intricate and complicated world and the author does not shy away from challenging each and every character’s view of what is best for it. There are no good or bad guys here.
The Obelisk Gate makes for an immersive high fantasy experience one that for all its magical elements presents with an all too real look into a divide and dying world.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist doesn’t tell a very memorable or engrossing story. If you’ve read the summary you know exactly what to expect from this book. We are introduced to Yona who is thirty-three and works as trip coordinator at Jungle, a travel company that specialises in organising disaster themed vacations. Yona is sexually harassed by her boss and seems like she would rather leave the company. She then agrees to go on a paid vacation in which she will have to determine whether Jungle should cancel this package. This vacation takes her to Mui, a fictional island not far from Vietnam. The disaster tourists that are travelling alongside Yona don’t seem all the impressed or shocked by Mui’s desert sinkhole. Yona then is left stranded to Mui and finds herself agreeing to take part in a morally questionable enterprise.
As a critique of disaster tourism this book doesn’t really offer anything truly compelling or thought-provoking. Most readers will be aware of the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of this brand of tourism and of the motivations of those who wish to participate in it (wanting to raise awareness, witness sites of devastation in order to understand them).
The author’s style does very little showing. Unlike with books like Temporary or Convenience Store Woman readers will never gain an insight into Yona’s job or her mind. She remains a surface character whose actions are either obscure or unbelievable. The tone of this book was also kind of a miss for me (definitely not as darkly funny or insightful as it wanted to be).
What could have been an irreverent look at tourism ended up being a forcibly surreal tale that wasn’t half as clever or inventive as it tried to be.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Dragon Keeper: A novel by Mindy Mejia — book review

The Dragon Keeper tells a very specific type of story. This the third novel I’ve read by Mindy Mejia and it certainly has a unique premise. Mejia’s books differ in style and subject-manner, yet genre distinctions aside, each one of her story is underlined by a tense atmosphere. Most of The Dragon Keeper takes place in the zoo where Meg Yancy works. Meg is the keeper of her zoo’s Komodo dragon, Jata. Having never been close to her parents or her phlegmatic sort-of-boyfriend, Meg finds fulfilment in looking after Jata.51IxZjmAE2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
When the zoo discovers that has produced viable eggs, without mating, Jata begins to receive attention from the media and the scientific world. It becomes clear that Meg, who is closed-off and often abrasive, isn’t versed in zoo politics. While Meg may be Jata’s keeper, she has little control over the Komodo dragon’s future.
Moving from the time before and after the hatching of Jata’s eggs, The Dragon Keeper depicts Meg’s relationship to Jata. Meg wants the best for Jata yet she finds herself bending rules and ignoring signs that point to Jata’s predatory nature. Meg’s entanglement with a veterinary, who also happens to been her sworn enemy, further clouds her judgment.
There are a lot of interesting discussions in this narrative: on parthenogenesis, on Komodo dragons, on animals who are raised in zoos, on the advantages and disadvantages of zoos, on the way media manipulates facts, on parenting and on abortion.
There is also a sense of unease pervading the story. Meg makes quite a few hasty or questionable decisions and readers are given the impression that her behaviour will get her in trouble.
While I do wish that some of the characters had been more fully fleshed out, I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which certain minor characters were portrayed.
Given the narrow scope of this story, I don’t think that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Still, it is an interesting examination of a woman whose loneliness is assuaged by an animal who is often regarded as a threat. Mejia succeeds in making us care for Jata, without romanticising her or ascribing unrealistic attributes to her.
Poignant moments aside, The Dragon Keeper left me wanting more.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

the-fifth-season-16.jpg

Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin — book review

Emergency-Skin-by-N.K.-Jemisin.jpgNow this is how you write a great short story.
There is a reason why many, me included, regard N.K. Jemisin as one of the best speculative fiction writers out there it’s because of stories such as this one.
One of her greatest strengths is her ability to use innovative writing perspectives in such a compelling way. In Emergency Skin she once again masterfully utilises the second person point of view.
The narrative never lets us see through the eyes of the explorer himself and we follow the progress of him mission thanks to the running commentary of his ‘ancestors’ that thanks to some advanced form of technology are able to give him directions and orders. They refer to him as ‘you’, answer to his questions and or comments, and attempt to command his every action. Time and again they remind him that the successful completion of his mission will result in his earning his skin. Because yes, the explorer comes from a society that considers skin a privilege that only a few should have.
Things do not go as planned as the explorer, much to his ancestors chagrin, discovers that the planet Earth isn’t the rusty shell he was it would be.
The vivid narrative and intriguing storyline immediately grabbed my attention. Although speculative in nature there many aspects that make this short story quite topical. Jemisin manages to comment on the behaviour of a certain group of people without turning her story into a didactic one. Her organic storytelling allows her to work within her story a discussion and interrogation regarding our world’s current state of affair…and in some ways one could see this story as a cautionary tale of sorts as it presents us with some of the worst aspects of our society. There are plenty of clever and thoughtful arguments within Emergency Skin which is why I would be happy to read this again.
This is yet another example of Jemisin’s rich imagination.

I listened to the audiobook edition narrated by Jason Isaacs, actor best known for portraying the imperious Lucius Malfoy….and maybe that’s why his voice perfectly lends itself to that of the ancestors. What a terrific narrator!

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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