N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is more intriguing than satisfying. But that’s fine by me, because when I say it’s intriguing, I mean it’s really intriguing.

The first two lines hint that this is a story that will play with form: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” That wry tone carries through the prologue, turning what could be a bald infodump into a winking overview of the setting. (It’s also a fun poke at the type of prologue that does dump a ton of backstory on the reader. “None of these places or people matter, by the way,” the narrator says after laying out a few more things. “I simply point them out for context.”)

The experimentation doesn’t stop there. The first few chapters set up multiple timelines and points of view. Damaya and Syen’s are told in third person and Essun’s in second, which is an interesting choice. You can read it as Essun reacting to a horrific tragedy by stepping outside herself, or the narrator speaking directly to Essun. Or, if your attention wanders, you might refocus and think the narrator is talking to you for a moment. This occasionally feels like an accusation: “You aren’t just inflicting death on your fellow villagers, of course. A bird perched on a nearby fence falls over frozen, too … Death was always here. Death is you.”

Throughout, we’re introduced to a unique world. Our world, it seems: Essun and the others call it Earth. But something happened to break it, destabilizing its core and leading to near-constant geologic activity. The worst of this can set off volcanic blasts that lead to “Fifth Seasons,” prolonged winters that last years or centuries. These Seasons also tend to trigger additional side effects: acid rain, crop-killing fungal blooms, and so on.

Humanity has survived these mini-apocalypses by establishing rules known as “stonelore” that dictate how to prepare for and weather such events. But the costs are often high. The Earth is littered with “deadciv” ruins and artifacts, such as floating obelisks. Some technologies, like hydroelectricity, are still understood, but others, like gunpowder, have only recently been rediscovered. Most people are divided into strict castes. On the fantasy side of things, there’s an intricate magic system. Non-humans make occasional appearances, and modified humans also pop up.

The Fifth Season isn’t self-contained, though. The conclusion fulfills few goals. Damaya and Syen never really have any beyond survival anyway; Essun’s quest for vengeance and closure remains open. Other questions remain unanswered too. This first book in the Broken Earth series is mostly about building the world and its characters while developing a crisis the subsequent books will (presumably) resolve.

If it weren’t all so skillfully done, I might have come away feeling a bit cheated. But I’m happy to keep going—Jemisin’s earned my trust. What a vision.

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars begins as a disaster story and ends as a space race. Both tales are compelling in their own right, but I’m not sure they fit together as cleanly as they could have.

The book opens in 1952 with a meteor strike that obliterates much of the United States’ east coast. Elma York, the protagonist and a former member of WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots, an organization of female aviators who crewed mostly non-combat missions during World War II), navigates the destruction by flying her husband out of the danger zone. Elma can do more than just handle a plane, though. She’s an ace mathematician employed as a “computer” by NACA, the predecessor to NASA. Her husband works at NACA as an engineer. Shortly after the strike, Elma helps him calculate the size of the meteor and the resulting consequences. Her conclusion: the impact set off a runaway greenhouse effect that will eventually boil the oceans.

The rest of The Calculating Stars becomes an accelerated push to get humans into space so they can colonize new worlds in time to save the species. Much of the history is real: Kowal begins many chapters with an actual New York Times headline and then tweaks the copy to fit her divergent timeline. She also consulted a long list of experts (see the afterword) to get the science right and make her pilot and NACA jargon sound authentic. Sadly, the climate-change skepticism—despite an undeniable trigger event, which our current reality lacks—rings true as well. So does the blatant sexism and racism: even staring down the barrel of an existential crisis, would 1950s America start treating women and people of color respectfully? (Probably not!)

But while good, the majority of the book felt like it belonged to a different genre than the (equally good) start. I don’t mind mixing and match; in fact, I often love it. Yet the gripping survival story at the outset made me assume the rest of the novel would progress in a similar vein. Instead, I got Elma’s incremental quest to make sure women are among the first people to see (her alternate) Earth from orbit. I grew to like that story too, but it took a while, in large part because Kowal set my expectations in a different direction.

Maybe this should have been two books: one about the aftereffects of the meteor and the struggle to comprehend the bigger catastrophe to come (at the moment, Elma figures things out extremely quickly), and one about her battles against chauvinism in NACA. But the Lady Astronaut series is already a trilogy, so splitting the initial installment might have been overkill. And it won awards as is. I’m obviously in the minority with this opinion.

In any case, I genuinely enjoyed The Calculating Stars. Both parts of it. I just had to be patient with the transition.

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Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars sucked me in with a fascinating structure: parallel stories, both anchored in Syria, one set in modern times and the other in medieval. Unfortunately, this dynamic never quite lived up to its potential.

The present-day portion is narrated by Nour, the youngest daughter of a family who moves back to Syria as civil war is breaking out in 2011. The conflict quickly renders them homeless and forces them to shift from country to country in search of sanctuary. It’s a heartbreaking tale focused not on politics—Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal would-be dictator, is never mentioned—but on the dangers and tragedies that beset refugees, particularly women, when strife sunders a nation.

It's not all dark: Nour and her family are resilient and likable, and they exercise the small agencies circumstances allow. Yet the real counterweight is the interwoven story of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who leaves her mother’s home to seek out Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, the mapmaker commissioned by the Norman King Roger to chart the world. Rawiya pretends to be a young man so she can serve as al-Idrisi’s apprentice. Together they visit exotic lands, escape hostile armies, and battle mythical beasts such as the legendary roc.

This tale is also told by Nour, a saga she learned from her father. Rawiya’s exploits give Nour courage as she travels the same region. But the contrast is stark: Rawiya chose to embark on a grand journey; Nour and her family were forced to flee their home. She recognizes the difference. “I’m not Rawiya,” she admits at one point. “This isn’t an adventure.”

Yet aside from making Nour’s nightmare bearable, Rawiya’s story has no real bearing on her counterpart, and vice versa. There are shared themes—strong female protagonists, the importance of family, the wonder of maps—and a few moments when Nour believes she’s found physical artifacts of Rawiya’s experiences, but nothing truly substantive. It’s a necessary disconnect; the girls are separated by time and fact. To establish real interplay, Joukhadar would have had to inject as much fantasy into Nour’s passages as she did Rawiya’s, and that might have undermined the novel’s message. Still, I think it’s the way these characters operate largely independent of each other that made The Map of Salt and Stars a slow read for me.

I enjoyed Joukhadar’s prose, though. Nour has synesthesia, and her version of the condition associates shapes and colors with smells, sounds, and letters. This makes for some beautiful descriptions as she maps her world: “Inside,” Nour says of the family’s house in Syria, “the walls breathe sumac and sigh out the tang of olives. Oil and fat sizzle in a pan, popping up in yellow and black bursts in my ears. The colors of voices and smells tangle in front of me like they’re projected on a screen: the peaks and curves of Huda’s pink-and-purple laugh, the brick-red ping of a kitchen timer, the green bite of baking yeast.”

Language like that kept me going even when the pace lagged. I’m glad I made it through. The Map of Salt and Stars is worth finishing. ----

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I write mostly speculative fiction. Usually fantasy, with historical elements mixed in. Sometimes there's a bit of mystery too, or (shhh!) even a little romance.

 

But it's weird—it's always weird. Consider yourself warned.

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Hosue with a Blue Door - eBook Cover - S