N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’ve never read “high” fantasy. I know Tolkien is considered high fantasy, but his writing is so heavily influenced by medieval texts and culture so it’s easy to understand the rules of the world he has created, much like George R.R. Martin. I purchased the ebook of N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy (not to be confused with The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini) on a whim before traveling to Europe for 2 weeks. I always assume I’m going to read a lot more than I actually do when I’m traveling. However, I didn’t actually start the first book till this year… March 1st, to be precise. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a little difficult to get into because it was so unlike the other fantasy books I’ve read (namely Tolkien, Martin, and Rowling). It took a while to understand the world Jemisin created. By the end, I could say that I really enjoyed this book, but am not in a rush to finish the trilogy.

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Source: Goodreads

It was a slow start for me and I was never in a rush to get home and pop open the book. I can’t pinpoint why — maybe because while it was really interesting, it wasn’t captivating. The story follows Yienne Darr, a young woman from a warrior tribe. She is the child of a high-born heir to the throne of the Arameri kingdom (the highest of all) and a Darre man. Summoned by her grandfather, Yienne learns that she is a pawn in his game to determine which of Yienne’s two cousins will be the next heir. Besides dealing with a psychotic (I think it’s very fair to use this term here) cousin, Yienne also has to deal with four gods — or beings that were gods, but were imprisoned by another god. The backstory of the gods (there are three main ones) unfolds slowly and is very interesting. Yienne is an outsider not just by race (her skin is darker, implying the difference is racial and not only ethnic) but also culturally. In her tribe, women are the rulers and politics are a lot more clear cut. At Arameri, however, there are multiple alliances to consider.

Like I said, the story is interesting once you get into it. The world Jemisin created is unique, though I still would have liked to see more world-building. On the whole, I enjoyed Jemisin’s writing, but I could do without one thing she did pretty frequently: character’s eyes did a lot more than I thought eyes were capable of doing. Yienne was always able to see the true feelings of a character through that character’s eyes, something akin to “I could see in X’s eyes that he was doing his best to stay calm.” I don’t mind this once or twice, but it happened enough for me to notice and, eventually, get a tad annoyed. I learned later that this was Jemisin’s debut novel, so I could see an editor calling her out a bit on these in the later novels.

I go back and forth on Jemisin’s main character. It was understandable that Yienne feels and is helpless when she first arrives to Arameri. She’s been isolated from this part of her heritage and she’s only heard about this kingdom for her mother. It becomes clear she is a pawn and while we see some instances of the warrior queen she is supposed to be, on the whole, she seemed lacking in agency. Ultimately, Yienne comes to her own by playing by some of their and some of her rules, asserting some agency in a situation in which she isn’t allowed any. The entrapped gods have also taken away her agency in a way I can’t explain without spoilers. When Yienne does take control it almost seems accidental. That being said, I really liked the conclusion to Yienne’s story. I was concerned about how Jemisin was going to end the novel and I was pleasantly surprised.

On Goodreads, I gave this book 4/5 stars. I am curious about the 2nd and 3rd books, because I do like the world Jemisin created, but I’m thinking of reading The Fifth Season first. Anyone have their own suggestions on whether to finish this series before checking out The Fifth Season?

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I’m not one who willingly picks up a book that takes place in the American South. I usually read books that help me escape my reality, not remind me how awful the present is. My reason for picking up Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound is pretty shallow. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, two actors I’m big fans of, are starring in the adaptation and I’m the kind of nerd who needs to read the book before watching the movie (I still haven’t watched PBS’s Wolf Hall because that book is on my shelf waiting to be read). I have no idea when the movie is coming out, but I borrowed the book from a friend so it moved up on the list. I wasn’t expecting to love this book, merely read it as part of my nerdy desire to know the book before the adaptation ruins it. Well, you can probably see where this is going…I absolutely loved it. I read it in one sitting during my 7 hour shift at the library. Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a happy, feel-good book. This is the book that will wrench your heart out and make you eat it. Which is why I loved it.

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Mudbound takes place in post-WWII South. Jordan brings to life not just the blatant racism against black Americans dominant in the South, but also the hypocrisy of sending out black men to fight for a country that rejects their humanity. Jordan writes about two families: the McAllens (white farmers) and the Jacksons (the black tenants). Laura is 31 when she meets Henry McAllen, a 41 year old engineer who uproots her from her comfort in Jackson and moves her to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Henry was cheated out of a house he rented so the family of four with Henry’s awful father in tow have to live in a broken-down house on the farm. Jamie McAllen and Ronsel Jackson are WWII veterans who face different realities when they come home. Both traumatized from their experiences, they struggle finding their place outside the war. Ronsel, who was in an all-black division that actually fought (most all-black divisions were forced to do manual labor), had an affair with a woman in Germany. Here is where Jordan highlights the complexity of race. In WWII Germany, a place not very welcoming to non-white, non-Christian people, a white German woman could be seen having an affair with a black American soldier. Jordan shows a black soldier being treated better in Germany than at home. The book is not for the faint-of-heart; there is an attempted lynching, which while the character survives, he is maimed. This is a man who fought against fascism, but is not shown the civility and honor of the white veterans. As someone interested in trauma theory, I was also enthralled by Jordan’s depiction of PTSD. With just two characters who suffer from war trauma, Jordan manages to show how trauma affects people differently and how those who didn’t experience the war first-hand react to the broken men who return. While the novel is relatively short, it is complex in its themes and depictions of its characters. 

Jordan presents the narrative from each main character’s perspective. I’m personally a fan of that technique; it’s probably why I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire and Dickens novels while many of my friends got annoyed. By weaving through the past and present of the characters, Jordan builds up the story slowly. You kind of know where the plot is headed, but the journey is just as important as the climax. Typical to the multiple point of view narrative technique, you sympathize with each character. Henry is the 1940s version of the “good” slave owner and while you still hate his ideas, Jordan makes it clear that he is the product of his times and you end up pitying him. In fact, I ended up pitying all the characters, just for different reasons. I think I loved this book so much because both the plot and the characterizations worked so well that I was lost within the text. It’s not easy reading a plot taking place in the late 1940s and realizing not much has changed in 70 years, but Jordan wrote such a beautifully-crafted book that the sad realization didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel. 

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

In need of what I knew would be a heartwarming story, I picked up Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. Having read A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (in which Britt-Marie makes an appearance), I knew Backman would be able to make me feel, something not all books can do. Like Ove, Britt-Marie is not a new story. In Ove, we get the foreign, “colorful” woman bring life to a grumpy old man; in Britt-Marie, a recently separated woman finds herself (and purpose) in a small town devastated by the recession. While these stories are not exactly original, Backman has a way with writing characters that it doesn’t matter. All his characters are interesting and multidimensional.

britt(Source: Goodreads)

In Borg, the fictional small town in which Britt-Marie finds temporary employment as a caretaker of an abandoned recreation center, we meet the characters who feel love for their town and a hope that things might get better. The town’s love for soccer seems to be what gets them through. Backman writes of orphaned children who are more resilient than anyone their age should be; an older brother caught halfway between being parents to his younger siblings (and, as Britt-Marie points out, puts his cutlery in the correct order and therefore must be a good man) and protecting his criminal best friend; a crippled woman who runs the pizzeria/grocery store/post office; and a cop who loved to paint and make sushi (I imagined him as Louis CK’s character from Parks and Recreations). Britt-Marie gets caught up in the town’s love of soccer and starts understanding how the townspeople see the world (who you support says a lot about you). All the characters are captivating, whether they are funny or tragic.

Britt-Marie’s struggle as she tries to make sense of a world that she never understood and her grief over her sister’s death so long ago makes the reader care for and respect a character who was so annoying in My Grandmother…. Her fear of being found dead days after her death, possibly chewed on my dog/cat/rat, drove her to find a job for the first time in 40 years. Her logic was that if you don’t show up for work one day, someone will know something is wrong. She left behind her cheating and abusive (to be discussed later) husband, but could not let go of the comfort of having a clean home and balcony. Backman’s descriptions of her internal struggle of living by her own, possibly obsessive-compulsive rules, and learning to adapt to a new life can resonate with anyone who has had to be outside their comfort zone for the first time.

The story gave me the warm feelings I was expecting when I picked it up, but there is one aspect that bothered me. Britt-Marie’s husband, Kent, was verbally abusive. Britt-Marie recalls being told that she’s not “socially competent;” he would regularly dismiss her opinions and mock her openly in front of others. As someone who has witnessed verbal abuse and the damage it can do to one’s psyche, I felt that this aspect could have been dealt with better. When he comes to Borg to try to get her back, the others can see — through his actions and his preferred soccer team — that he is a jerk. But no one tells Britt-Marie that his treatment of her is wrong. Throughout the text, Britt-Marie blames herself as well Kent for their marriage falling apart. It is typical for the victim of abuse to blame herself for “deserving” the abuse, but we don’t get a clear cut moment of her realizing that none of it is her fault. While the maybe-not-as-ambiguous-as-it-could-have-been ending implies that Britt-Marie realizes her own worth, I think — in response to such a toxic relationship — a more clear-cut rejection of Kent was necessary.

Despite my annoyance of the treatment of Kent, this was a very enjoyable book. Again, it’s not a new story, but Backman writes in a way that it doesn’t matter. The plot doesn’t need to be very original, because the characters and narrative are. Plus, she gives a rat snickers on a plate and provides it with a napkin. What more does one need in a story?

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

As a fan of WWI novels, I was excited to read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. I have Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand–have had for 4 years now and haven’t read it yet, story of my life. There are some very positive aspects of this book. I think Simonson, by describing the countryside and country living, captures the idealism of the idyllic summer of 1914, or at least as it has been romanticized since the beginning of the war. An older woman (Mrs. Kent) sunbathing naked in her backyard, garden parties, and pageants all work to capture the peace and tranquility felt by the upper- and upper-middle class in that June and July.

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(Source: Goodreads)

Simonson writes some interesting characters. The main character, Beatrice Nash, is newly orphaned and comes to the village  of Rye to be the new Latin teacher. She is stereotypically a New Woman: she rides a bike, she’s more educated than any woman of her class “should” be, she’s independent, and she’s a suffragette. If the story focused solely on her, I think I would have enjoyed the book more. Instead, we get the view points of several characters: Mrs. Kent, who fights to get Beatrice a place at the school; Hugh Grange, her nephew, who is a medical student and goes off to the war as a medic; and Daniel, another nephew, who is an in-closet gay poet and joins the Front Lines when his lover dies in a flying accident. Other characters include Mr. Tillingham, an American author who lives in England (based loosely on Henry James), a couple of Belgian refugees, two “radical” women hinted at being lesbians, and an obnoxious Mayor’s wife. In trying to paint a picture of the village through these viewpoints, Simonson ended up diluting the substance of these characters. We get hints of depth in these characters, particularly with Beatrice and her history, but the pacing of the book (another issue I have) prevented me from getting attached to or feeling anything for the characters.

The pacing was a bit rushed. About 85% of the book was before the war and the last couple of chapters deal with the Front. We are given glimpses of the horrors of the war through Hugh and his surgeries. At the end, we get the romantic ending Simonson was leading us to, but it felt hollow. We do see the growing friendship between Hugh and Beatrice and some moments of attraction, but the lack of depth in both characters–and the knowledge from the beginning that this will happen–wasn’t enough to make me love this book. I know the book is considered “chick-lit”* so that’s not what disappointed me, but it was the lead up to it.

At the end, I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads, 2.5 rounded up because of my weakness for WWI books. From the reviews I’ve read of Major Pettigrew, I’m looking forward to reading that…eventually.

*I hate that anything with romance is considered chick-lit, but that’s a rant for another day.

Rereading Harry Potter in the Age of Trump

I didn’t think I was a fantasy fan when I was in high school. I read all of Oscar Wilde’s plays, Crime and Punishment (I blame my father), Count of Monte Cristo, and other such classics. When a friend of mine suggested we go see this movie about a boy wizard I was hesitant, but we went with our small group of friends after school on Friday to see it. It might have taken 10 minutes, maybe 20, before I was hooked. Castles! Magic! Ghosts! What was there not to like? Needless to say, I left a fan and purchased the bundle of books 1-4 in paperback the next day. In about two weeks, I was done with the books. I still refrained from calling myself a fan of fantasy. Those covers are weird! Which is why I also refused to read this book my cousin’s husband kept pushing on me; it was a little known book at the time called Game of Thrones. I’m still ashamed that I didn’t read it till 2011, but that’s also around the time I admitted to myself that I like fantasy. But I digress…

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(Source: barnesandnoble.com)

I’ve read the last three HP books at least 5 times each, but it had been a long time since I’ve read the books in order. After the farce of the election I needed some comfort and while Jane Eyre is my usual Christmas time reread, I decided it’s time to revisit the books that got me into fantasy. It’s the perfect escape. At least, it used to be.

What changed this year as I reread the series this time is my understanding of Voldermort. It’s not hard to draw some parallels between the rhetoric of fear and othering used by our President-elect and those used by the Dark Lord and his followers. Keeping a registry “mudbloods” isn’t very different from a registry of Muslims. To be honest, it’s scary. Voldermort wanted power for the pure-bloods while being a half-blood himself; Trump speaks out against immigrants while he is the son of one. Voldermort used harsh and insulting language to differentiate between himself and those who disagreed with him; Trump regularly takes to Twitter to insult anyone who speaks out against him, be it a civil rights leader or one of the greatest actors of our time. Voldermort is clearly depicted as a fascist leader (based on Hitler) and Trump’s positions certainly come off as fascist. Once the connection was made (while rereading Philosopher’s Stone) it was hard to ignore. My plan to escape into fantasy failed. I’m continuing with the reread of the series for the sake of nostalgia, but it is now tainted as I see more similarities between Voldermort and my new president.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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The final book of the trilogy was the weakest. While I enjoyed the sections that showed us the past as it builds the world, there was less of Kelsea who, by the end of book 2 (The Invasion of the Tearling), had so much potential. In this book she was merely a tool to show how Tear’s idea of utopia failed instead of being a worthy character herself. To be fair, the past was just as interesting as Kelsea’s present (at least in book 2). Johansen did a great job showing that utopias are an idea to strive for, not necessarily something that can be achieved. By working towards equality, we work towards a utopia. It was important for Kelsea’s character to understand this by seeing the past so that she can make the decisions she needed to in the future (another great point: we need to understand our history to not repeat the same mistakes … this applies well to our current political situation).

This book suffered by making the secondary characters more interesting. Like I said before, Kelsea had the potential of being a great character. Johansen built this character over the first two books only to collapse it in the third. And while the characters from the past, Row, Katie, and Gavin, were interesting, you end up wanting more but then being pushed back to a present with a passive Kelsea. I rarely say this about books, but this is a book that could have been longer IF the length provided more depth to the characters.

The plot was also just meh. After a fantastic ending in book 2, book 3 was anti-climactic. Again, this could be because of the back and forth between past and present, but that wasn’t a problem in book 2. There was a great deal going on in the present that we really only get glimpses of, but if you’re going to show the failure of a world, then I wonder why that didn’t get the attention that it deserved. Also, did we need another YA book with vampires? That came out of nowhere. We get no information on why they were created, except for a power-hungry rejected son wanting an army. But why vampires? There was an audible “ugh” when I reached that part of the story.

Unlike many other reviewers, I did not mind the ending. In fact, considering how much time Johansen spent on focusing on the past, the concept of time, and the mystery of time travel, it seemed like a natural ending. However, the present again suffered. There was only a glimpse of Kelsea sitting on the floor while the crazy vampire children where fighting her Queen’s guard and killing them. The characters Johansen helped us care about were merely collapsed into a few second glimpse before moving on. I like it when a book punches me in the guts with emotions and more than liking it, I wanted this book to give me that, this ending did not provide do that. Unlike the other books in the trilogy, when I finished this one I easily moved on to the next book on my to-read list.

Overall, while Johansen provided a decent ending to the story and the trilogy, I was disappointed in The Fate of the Tearling. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling again without ever picking this last one up.

 

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminism

A few hours ago, I had the joy of seeing Roxane Gay at Boswell Bookstore (a great local store in Milwaukee). She read excerpts for her latest book, Bad Feminist, a collection of essays. There is a paragraph in her introduction that, I believe, sums up the best ideas in feminism. 

“I try to keep my feminism simple. I know feminism is complex and evolving and flawed. I know feminism will not and cannot fix everything. I believe in equal opportunities for women and men. I believe in women having reproductive freedom and affordable and unfettered access to the health care they need. i believe women should be paid as much as men for doing the same work. Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices ourselves. I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like” (xii). 

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