Review: And Again, by Jessica Chiarella

25110965>>Published: January 2016

>>Finally got around to it: May 2016

“Is it what they were talking about on the radio?” he asks, releasing my hand and sitting back in his chair. “A few years ago all anyone could talk about was the UN passing an exception to the ban on human cloning. They were saying it was probably for medical research.”

“It was,” I reply, though I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Grath would put the pieces together. “There are four of us, in Chicago at least. I’m not sure how many across the country.”

“How does it work?” He’s very calm, for someone who’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from a clone of his best friend. It makes me want to hug him, though I don’t.

“They cut into your brain. The process kills you, but they’re able to extract pieces of the memory center of your brain and transfer it into a new body, into a clone of yourself. It’s sort of like injecting stem cells. The brain matter takes room in the clones and grows there. You become a new person,” I say. “Well, the same person, but a new body.”

“So how old are you?” he asks. He looks a little pale. I wonder if it was a good idea to tell him, if he’s too old and too fragile for these sorts of revelations.

“I guess, maybe a few months old? But they use hormones to rapidly age the clones so they match up with the age you are at the time of transfer. I guess they figured it would be a bit unnerving for adults to wake up in the bodies of infants. They’re all about the psychological effects, let me tell you. I have to go to a support group every week for a year.”

***

SUBlife: an experimental procedure, up for FDA approval, in which participants are selected via lottery to receive a new lease on life—quite literally. The lucky few, all of whom are dying from one thing or another, are cloned, their bodies aged to be what they were upon the death of their original models, and then given a transfer—bits of the brain’s memory centre are ported into the clone, so that the individual in question is able to start a second life with a full memory of their first.

If only it were so simple, though; as with any experimental procedure, the humans at the heart of it have their own issues, agendas, and reasons for wanting the ultimate of do-overs. Only in this instance they are forced to grapple with some larger-than-life questions, such as whether or not they are in fact the same people they once were, or if the transfer process, if vacating one body for another, has changed them or made them somehow less human.

Author Chiarella focuses the narrative on only one of these groups of people, cloned at Northwestern in Chicago: Hanna, an idealistic young painter with metastatic lung cancer; Linda, a mother and scholar trapped in a waking coma for eight years following a car accident; Connie, an actress who burned bright, got into drugs, and contracted HIV; and David, a right-wing US Congressman with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.

Upon winning this lottery of lotteries, the four are given certain stipulations—they’re not to take up potentially life-altering pursuits such as skydiving and smoking, for example. Additionally, they are to meet as a support group every week for a year, to chart their progress, as the success of the program’s wider implementation rests on their cloned shoulders.

It’s during the support group, however, that we learn the most from these characters—both of their pasts (all of which are troubled in some way, shape, or form, though none more than Linda’s) and of the challenges and fears they must confront due to the fact that, effectively, they’ve died and pulled a Jesus 2.0. Some of their challenges are quite personal, such as Hannah realizing that her muscle memory for painting has not carried over to her new body; on the other hand David’s plot deals not only with the fact that he bought his way into the experiment but that he did so knowing that the God his constituents believe in, and indeed their beliefs in general, starkly oppose human cloning and, in essence, humans playing god.

Right about now I need to say a couple of things, in the interest of fair play: first, I greatly enjoyed Chiarella’s novel. It plays fast and loose with the science, naturally, but she sells it about as much as she needs to. Because it’s not about the hows or the whys, or if it’s even possible, on any conceivable level, for something like this to work; it’s about the characters, and the asking of a very real, very straightforward question: What is it that makes us human?

The second thing I need to say, and this is where it gets a bit awkward for me, is that I am a very biased reviewer with respect to this specific book, and that what prompted me to pick this title up in the first place was in reading the synopsis and saying aloud in the bookstore, “Well, fuck me, this sounds familiar.” In short, my second book, which I’ve been working on for six years now and which is currently in its fifth round of edits, shares a number of elements with Chiarella’s at the DNA level—from the cloning and transferring of minds to the resultant questions and attempts to understand what’s lost in the process, as well as what’s gained. In short, this was both exciting and a little unnerving, because the last thing any writer wants to see is their ideas or similar approximations in another’s text—we all want to view ourselves as original snowflakes, after all.

Thankfully, however, Chiarella and I differ in our focus, and with respect to the specificity of certain things. As such, I was able to detach a little more from my own work and enjoy this for what it is—a fast-paced character study with some rather lofty ideas.

While I never lost interest in what was happening or the ways in which the story progressed, I do have a few issues with certain narrative choices, and things dropped too quickly or not touched upon at all.

On the strictly narrative side of things, the affair between Hannah and David, who on paper are ethical opposites that despise one another, never really rang true. While it’s justified as two basically reborn people attempting to rationalize their new and old lives and to better understand how to define their current existence, it still felt like one of those things that is inserted into the text because the author simply needed to create further conflict. In short, it didn’t feel earned, and was not helped in this regard by the gaps of sometimes months between each part, in which a fair amount of off-the-page development seemed to occur.

I also would have loved to see further exploration into questions of their autonomy, and whether or not their lack thereof in certain circumstances alters their individual perspectives on what they now are: humans, or products of a larger corporate and/or scientific entity. This concern is most evident when Linda becomes pregnant, at her husband’s request, to try and save their splintering family, only when she has second thoughts she learns she cannot abort the child because the SUBlife committee needs the data from her pregnancy. And because her life and body had been signed over to them, she is given no say in the matter.

It also would have been interesting to witness more of the political and societal fallout from the story getting leaked to the outside world. While yes, this is meant to be an intimate tale of what’s lost and what can be regained or reset on a life-by-life basis, it’s difficult, sometimes, to take a story like this and place it in such a tight bottle—because the ramifications of such a thing merely existing would be so far reaching and dramatic as to change the tenor of the world. It’s the Robert Sawyer problem—stories that change the world but feel like they’re the size and scope of a stage play. Where Chiarella succeeds, though, and where Sawyer fails and fails and fails some more, is in having strong, intelligent characters who are struggling to figure out what their changed identity means.

To bring it back around to my aforementioned bias, I felt while reading And Again that certain character changes came about a little quickly. There’s nothing paid to the idea that their bodies are new save for their fresh and youthful appearances and an inability to taste as they once did, or handle their liquor—or, as revealed later, to be able to carry a pregnancy to term. But there’s nothing to the idea that these bodies, prior to waking up, are unused and would need extensive physical rehab; there’s also little on the medical side of things concerned with the ways in which they function differently, with respect to remembering certain skills but not having the muscle memory to carry them out (ie: Hannah and her painting). One would think they’d be given more attentive care throughout, to adjust and track such things, given all that’s riding on their ability to re-enter their lives as effortlessly and conflict-free as possible. But again, I’m projecting my own ideas onto what is, in the end, a very different story with only a similar overarching conceit.

What carries this book in the end is the journey of its four main characters. Their paths are unpredictable, for the most part, and even when they do fall into either uncharacteristic or seemingly unearned behaviours, we give them grace because they are, in some ways literally, no longer themselves. And they are figuring out what that means at the same time we are learning both who they were and who they now are.

And Again is a quick read, and while I’m not always a fan of the first person, especially when switching between characters, Chiarella gives them each a unique enough voice that one never becomes lost. This is terrific summer reading that asks a little more of its readers than the standard popcorn fare, and is successful in what it sets out to do. Definitely recommended.

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

9781594634635_custom-2593ed815285acb4dca2b31593cb227d0e62e676-s400-c85>>Published: March 2016

>>Finally got around to it: April 2016

Mum and Dad wouldn’t be thrilled by my new career ambitions. Don’t forget your Uncle Majhi… Majhi the mime… and ask yourself, do we really want more people like that in our family? My parents worked a lot—no need to bother them with something that might not work out. The thing to do was gain admission first and talk them round later. I bought a brown-skinned glove puppet. He came with a little black briefcase and his hair was parted exactly down the middle. The precision of his parting made me uneasy; somehow it was too human at the exact same time as exposing his status as a nonhuman. I got him a top hat so I wouldn’t have to think about the cloth hair falling away from the center of his cloth scalp. You gave me a hand with some basics of ventriloquism, even though you definitely weren’t supposed to help—it was then that I began to hope that you’d stop saying I wasn’t right for you—and I taught my puppet to tell jokes with a pained and forlorn air, fully aware of how bad the jokes were. Sometimes you laughed, and then my glove puppet would weep piteously. When you took the glove puppet he alternated between flirtatious and suicidal, hell-bent on flinging himself from great heights and out of windows. I noticed that you didn’t make a voice or a history for the puppet, but you became its voice and history. I’d have liked to admire that but felt I was watching a distressing form of theft, since the puppet could do nothing but suffer being forced open like an oyster.

***

Her first short fiction collection following five novels and two plays, Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Your is Not Yours is a bit difficult to get a feel for—at once quite intelligent and decidedly well written, it’s also detached, its characters and plots for the most part removed from one another, at least on an emotional level.

The nine stories in the collection all revolve around or contain some reference to a key of one sort or another. Characters occasionally exist in multiple stories, and threads of connectivity do exist, but the stories are primarily independent of one another, save this shared conceit.

In “Books and Roses,” a young girl named Montserrat is abandoned with a key around her neck, the purpose of which remains for years a mystery. She comes to befriend another woman with a key of her own, an artist awaiting the return of her possibly murderous lover. “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” begins by discussing the narrator’s friendship with a man named Chedorlaomer, and then diverges into its primary tale about a violent, ill-tempered musician named Matyas Füst who abuses a prostitute, and when knowledge of this goes viral, proceeds to fumble his apology—and then continues to fumble the apology to his apology in much the same way, by focusing entirely on himself and not at all on the individual he hurt.

With the DNA of Pinocchio at its core, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” is a story about puppeteers and students of puppetry, with a shifting narrative voice: the first half belongs to Radha; the second to her living puppet Gepetta. In “Drownings,” a man named Arkady plots to kidnap the daughter of the tyrant who orphaned him, having his parents drowned in the middle of the night when he was just a boy.

“Presence,” one of the collection’s strongest entries, follows a couple as they undergo a psychological experiment charting their presences, and the possibilities inherent to their lives and futures, when not in the same location. In an interesting turn of events, and as one of the more affecting sequences in the entire book, the wife, Jill, goes so far as to hallucinate, in a very believable way, a son that never existed in the first place. The experience is described intriguingly as “an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone.

“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” explores two university societies as they go head-to-head with one another while issues of interpersonal love and lust go unabated. “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” is another entry obviously influenced by fairy tales, imagining if Red Riding Hood were older, wiser, widowed, and had struck a deal with the Big Bad Wolf—to find for him a sacrifice rather than to allow him to feast on just any unfortunate passerby. A charming story about things from youth being locked away, to be sacrificed or bargained for in adulthood. It’s in this and the first story that the use of the key as a narrative device works best.

“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?” introduces us to the titular nursery school teacher, the son of two Hotel Glissando employees who wish their offspring to follow in their footsteps—whether it’s what he wants or not. And lastly, “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think” dives deep into office gossip subculture as a new employee—Eva—is at first idolized for her mystery and appearance, and then ostracized for being an adulterer. She carries with her a diary she’d stopped writing in years earlier—the story’s lock in need of a key, of course.

While I loved the mystery of the final story’s ending, and how it felt somehow complete in its ambiguity, that’s more than I can say for many others in this collection. Which, I suppose, is one of my chief complaints: that the majority of the stories don’t feel so much as they end as they limp off into the distance having been shot in the calf.

The second issue I have with this collection is with respect to the key, both as an object and a theme that runs throughout. Frequently the presence of these keys felt unnaturally forced into place in each story. I was made aware of the conceit of the key prior to reading this book, upon reading an interview given by the author. I can’t be sure had I not known about its purpose ahead of time that the sense of discovering a key in each story might have been stronger, but going into the collection with this knowledge in mind, I think, helped to draw additional attention to their existence—an unfortunate thing in this instance, as they routinely stood out as items injected into scenes not always necessary to the whole, as if the author had decided upon the shared imagery after the fact.

Lastly, I have to admit I struggled with the nested aspect of many of these tales. Oyeyemi’s short stories are like Matryoshka dolls that begin with an outer layer not necessarily linked—at least not intrinsically—to what’s inside; often I felt as if I was being taken on tangents too many to count, and as such found myself not necessarily losing focus but certainly losing interest in the “main” narratives of several of the stories. However, this is a personal issue. I am pickier about short fiction than I am any other form, and what I often like most about the works of short fiction that have stuck with me over time is their focus—the promise of a single idea stretched and spiralled to its limit. Oyeyemi’s short stories, on the other hand, meander and take their time finding their way to the end. I can’t really fault this as it is a stylistic decision, and a valid one at that, but in this format it did not work for me, and I was left at the end of each story feeling more frustrated than not.

On a purely technical level, Oyeyemi’s craft is second to none. Her use of language is skilful as always, and her abilities only seem to increase with each book. Narratively, though, I flip-flop on her work, and often come down on the side of wanting to love it so much more than I actually do. To date, I’ve read four of her novels, and her first, The Icarus Girl, is still my favourite, with the wickedly constructed White is for Witching a close second; Mr. Fox failed to connect with me, and though I found the writing in Boy, Snow, Bird to be exceptional, its narrative fell apart for me in its final section.

Given my issues with the narrative structure of many of the stories in this collection, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, though I would likely still place it in the middle of the pack—it doesn’t reach the heights of Icarus and Witching, but it’s an interesting work all the same. I only wish I could say I enjoyed it more than I did, but the best I can offer is a tepid shrug and a recommendation for maybe three or four of the nine stories: “Presence,” “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose,” “Drownings,” and “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.” And of these, “Presence” and “Drownings” were the only two I felt successfully established any sort of emotional connection. Which means either I’m dead inside, or perhaps this collection just wasn’t right for me.

Crossing my fingers for the latter.

Review: City of the Lost, by Kelley Armstrong

9780345815613>>Published: January 2016

>>Finally got around to it: March 2016

“I keep thinking about this place,” she blurts. “And don’t laugh, okay? Because I know it sounds crazy, and maybe it just proves how desperate I am. But in my therapy group, there’s this woman I have coffee with, and we talk about our escape plans, what we’d do if things got too bad. She has a place she’d go.”

“A cabin or something?”

“No, a town. For people who need to disappear. A place where no one can find them.”

“Like an underground railway for abuse victims?”

“For anyone in trouble. It’s an entire town of people who’ve disappeared.”

I shake my head. “I’m sorry, Di, but that sounds like a classic urban legend. Think about it. An invisible town? In today’s world, you’re never really off the grid. How would a place like that work? The economy, the security…”

“I’m not saying I believe in it. The point is that it proves how far I’ve fallen, Case. I can’t stop thinking about it. Obsessing over it. Telling myself maybe, just maybe, it could be real.”

“It isn’t,” I say. “Now, if you want to talk real strategies and escape plans, we can do that. But no fantasy bullshit. It’s a real problem; it needs a real solution.”

***

Detective Casey Duncan is haunted by her past. When she was just eighteen, she shot a man dead—her ex-boyfriend, Blaine. It wasn’t a cold-blooded murder, though, nothing so simple or premeditated. See, Blaine was a low-level drug dealer, and a child of Montréal’s Saratori crime family. He and Casey hooked up while she was a fledgling police cadet; he was, for lack of better phrasing, her “walk on the wild side.” But Blaine was more reckless than Casey at first realized, and when they were accosted one night by men who claimed Blaine was dealing on their turf, Casey’s would-be beau took off into the night, leaving her to face a wrath better directed at him.

She was left for dead that night, with, among other things: several fractures all over her body, a severe concussion, an intracranial hematoma, and lacerations. Oh, and she was probably raped, too, but somehow the rape kit mysteriously vanished before it could be processed.

It takes Casey eighteen months to recover from the attack, during which time Blaine never once visits or expresses concern. And when she finally does confront him, he wastes no time shirking all responsibility, going so far as to blame her for “allowing” herself to be raped and assaulted.

So yeah, he pretty much got what he deserved.

But Casey is unfortunately left shouldering the emotional burden of her crime, and though she has since become a respected detective (who also happens to be a black belt in aikido), she is unable to escape her past. So she periodically visits with new therapists, immediately confessing to them what she did, waiting for that day when one of them breaks confidentiality and Leo Saratori’s goons come knocking on her door; or that of her closest friend Diana; or Kurt, the troubled bartender with whom she’s sleeping (who is not-so-secretly the most interesting and trustworthy character in the book).

Her friend Diana, whom Casey has known and confided in for years (and is the only other person who knows what happened to Blaine), has demons of her own in the form of her ex-husband Graham, a lawyer and psychopath who has terrorized and traumatized Diana for years. When Graham steps back into the picture and beats Diana to within an inch of her life, and a Saratori henchman tracks Casey down and wounds Kurt trying to get to her, Diana is able to convince Casey to flee with her to a city that might or might not exist—a place where they can retreat from their pasts, until their pasts forget they exist.

This is the premise for author Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost, the first of a new series starring Detective Casey Duncan (or Butler, as she’s later renamed). The titular city, called Rockton, is a wilderness town that doesn’t exist on any map. Home to some two hundred souls seeking to escape crimes, traumas, and the mistakes of their pasts, its closest neighbour being the Yukon Territory’s Dawson City, Rockton is a mostly self-sustaining environment surrounded by a dark and sometimes violent forest. And like any city or town, regardless of size, it has its share of problems: prostitution, drug use (a local opiate called “Rydex,” or just “dex”), and of course, murder. Which is why, despite her past crime, Casey is allowed into town alongside Diana—because the existing sheriff, a rough plank of wood named Eric Dalton, needs all the help he can get to bring some semblance of justice to a town comprised of, as he puts it, women fleeing shit choices in men, and men fleeing shit choices in life.

Rockton itself is a fascinating idea, one rife with potential for mystery and subterfuge. (Even the town’s origins, as a refuge for those escaping McCarthy-era America in the 1950s, offer tantalizing possibility as to the sorts of individuals it houses or might house in future instalments.) And Armstrong does a pretty great job setting the stage for a hostile environment in which one could believe people living to avoid having to pay the price, or suffer the consequences, for the unfortunate ways in which their lives have turned out. At its core, however, this book is popcorn pleasure, and while I can see the many ways in which this sort of environment could be used for more in-depth commentary on modern society and what one must jettison to live a life (mostly) free from one’s demons, Armstrong never strays much from the core mystery’s path.

Where she does falter, however, is with respect to the novel’s core relationship between the aforementioned sheriff and town hardass Dalton, and our protagonist. From the jump, the two have a strained relationship, with Dalton initially untrusting of Casey, and Casey working to figure out how to adapt to life in Rockton and with what’s expected of her as Dalton’s partner in crime—so to speak. Both are strong characters, and the manner in which their friendship builds atop all their sarcasm and personal scar tissue—both literal and figurative—is done exceedingly well… but that’s all it ever was or should have been. A friendship. Or, that’s how I felt while reading.

The single largest issue I have with this book is that Armstrong wrote a hell of a friendship, one that felt both natural and, more importantly, earned. But I never got even the slightest hint of actual romantic chemistry between its two leads. So when events push them together, it simply never worked for me. Worse, their coming together almost immediately alters both their personalities and they become like puppy dogs to one another. Whatever fire existed at the core of their friendship, the fire that linked them as people, is readily tossed aside and, for the final third of the book, it feels like we are left following two new and different people. They share the same lives and histories as the characters we’ve been following from moment one, but once they decide to couple up they stop resembling their former selves on an emotional level. As a result, the events of the final chapters, and the threats to both their well-beings, simply don’t land with the same weight they could have had the characters remained more true to who they were, and felt less shoved in a direction that simply wasn’t natural.

Honestly, it felt to me like light character assassination, and in the end I lost interest in both of them. Oh, how I wish they would have remained friends, and built something more sibling like in terms of trust and experience, rather than what felt like a very forced coupling. That, and the fact that their first physical experience together, out in the woods, is deeply uncomfortable for a myriad of reasons—and is far too easily brushed aside once Casey decides to push ahead with their relationship.

Second on my list of complaints is something I don’t want to get into with too much detail, as to do so would be to spoil the ending, but holy shit the glut of information provided by the villain at the climax reeks of needing to finish the novel as quickly as possible. It’s a monologue so complete and inorganically detailed as to make even the best (or worst) Bond villain cringe… or maybe the better comparison would be that of some old amusement park owner whose evil schemes were thwarted by a bunch of kids and a dog driving some sort of Mystery Machine…

There is some satisfaction to be had in the revelations of the book’s latter half—Diana’s true nature, Dalton’s shady and complicated past—but I will say I was more frustrated than anything, both by the speed at which the plot wrapped up (via the aforementioned info-dump), and by the lack of closure experienced at the very end. Granted this is the start of a series, but there should still be some sense of closure at the end of a story like this, and I simply did not feel that was achieved. In other words, it felt too much like the first chapter of something larger, and not a complete tale in and of itself.

Review: Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It, by Kate Harding

1035x1553-FinalAFIcover>>Published: June 2015

>>Finally got around to it: February 2016

But there is something very wrong when you’re telling women (and only women) to keep their hair short, only dress in ways that no one could consider “provocative,” only dress in clothing that is difficult to cut off with scissors (so, Kevlar jeans, I guess?), and never use their phones or search through their purses in public.

There’s something wrong with expecting women to remember that they should always go for the groin, or the eyes, or the armpit, or the upper thigh, or the first two fingers (I am not making any of these up), and that it only takes five pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear, and if you hit someone’s nose with the palm of your hand and push up just right, you can drive the bone into their brain and kill them.

There’s something wrong with acting as though it’s perfectly reasonable to tell women never to drink to excess—and, when drinking to non-excess, never to let their drinks out of their sight—and not to walk alone at night and definitely not to travel alone, and not to job with earphones, and not to approach a stoplight without locking the car doors, and not to respond to the sound of a crying baby, and not to get into their cars without checking both the backseat and underneath the car first, and not to get in on the driver’s side if there’s a van parked next to it, and not to pull over for unmarked police cars until they’re in well-lit areas, and, and, and.

***

The short, to-the-point review: Author, columnist, and all-around awesome person Kate Harding has written a book about rape culture and you should all read it. Especially if you think it doesn’t exist; or if you hear the words “Gamer Gate” or “victim blaming” and roll your eyes like you think it’s all just some joke; or if you use “SJW” or “Social Justice Warrior” as a pejorative to describe people you think are taking all the fun out of life. Because these are all very real issues threatening women, men, LGBTQIA individuals, and their allies, and they need to be addressed.

It’s fitting that I should read this book the same week that professional douche-nozzle and all-around misogynistic, women-hating fuckwit Roosh V. and his trolling, doxxing, “legal rape”-promoting misappropriations of sperm are planning an international meet-up to learn how to be even wider enflamed assholes. (Their mothers must all be so proud.) Because, point of fact, these idiots are either criminals or promoting criminal acts that endorse the taking away of basic rights, liberties, and freedoms of half the world’s population by violent, aggressive, life-endangering means, and all so they can get their rocks off and feel like manly men, subscribing to the most toxic aspects of the stereotype of masculinity that so needs to die in a fire.

This book is a giant reality check for those with the privilege of having their heads in the sand, pretending that such issues don’t exist so long as they remain someone else’s problems. But what Harding does, in a wonderfully detailed-yet-glib manner, is drop hard facts, and lots of them. Each chapter tackles another facet of the culture, of our culture, and its blind spots regarding rape, assault, and the treatment of victims.

She addresses the tone-deafness of certain individuals (mostly white males) in saying “Why don’t women carry weapons to protect themselves? They’d be safer.” Tell that to Marissa Alexander, an African American woman who fired a warning shot into a wall to fend off her attacking husband, and was subsequently sentenced to twenty years in prison. Her conviction was overturned; however, in a new trial, she faced the possibility of an utterly absurd sixty years behind bars, and thus entered a guilty plea in a bargain for just three years. For a fucking warning shot against an attacker. And this is just one awful instance detailed in the book of the ways that race and class play into the public’s and the law’s willingness to believe a victim’s claims.

Harding goes on to tackle obvious necessities like safety tips, and calls for men and allies to be more direct in their support and willingness to confront those who would abuse, ignore, or merely shrug their shoulders at their own aggressive tendencies, or the illegal and violent actions of others. She goes on to suggest the creation of programs for youths to better explore issues of boundaries and consent, and even broaches the topic of what is and isn’t censorship when it comes to using rape in a joke (hint: it’s never censorship to criticize someone’s joke—freedom of speech does not mean freedom from reaction or rebuttal, it just means you’re not going to go to jail for being horrible and insensitive).

The most intense aspects of the book deal with the baffling and destructive culture of victim blaming and/or shaming that exists—that in the wake of a sexual assault, many women won’t report or fear reporting the crime, because by and large belief falls not in the victim’s court but in the perpetrator’s, leading to police and other law enforcement individuals often finding ways of turning said crime on the victim, spinning it as their fault, as something they were in some way asking for. Or simply disregarding the claims of rape or assault altogether. And in a world with Daniel Holtzclaw—the ex-Oklahoma police officer recently, rightfully, sentenced to 263 years in prison on eighteen counts of rape and assault—it’s not hard to see why so many have such apprehension or mistrust of the law, an issue compounded if the victim in question happens to be of a class or race other than wealthy and white.

And if you’re still not totally convinced as to the ramifications and fucking horribleness of victim blaming, look up the story of Seemona Sumasar, which Harding details quite well. The author uses the phrase “miscarriage of justice” to in part describe what happened to Sumasar upon reporting her assault, but really it’s an understatement akin to saying Tea Partiers aren’t terribly fond of Obama.

When all is said and done, though, the simple take-away from society’s tendency to victim-blame is this: treat the victim like a goddamn human being. It doesn’t seem like much to ask, until you learn that we have a system where two-thirds of all rape and assault cases are dismissed, with more than 80% of said dismissals happening against the victim’s continuing desire to prosecute.

Harding wraps up her crash course in rape culture by turning the spotlight to the media and pop culture—continual presences throughout, but needing their own, more detailed analysis. On the media side of things, she discusses how, as has been previously mentioned, the press is only truly interested in such a story if the victim and perpetrator match what is deemed ratings friendly (i.e., if the victim happens to be wealthy and white, and the attacker poor and of a visible minority). Similarly, film and television often do a disservice to victims and rapists by painting them with broad strokes—as perfect angels and vicious monsters respectively, when the reality for so many, especially when the attacker is known to the victim, is much harder to quantify in such simplistic terms. This is of course compounded when having to report an individual’s actions when others—possibly friends and family—also know and love, and trust, the suspect in question.

Lastly, we come to online trolls, gamergaters, and other similar Internet shit stains like those mentioned at the start of this review. These are “the new misogynists”—Men’s Rights Activists (MRA’s) and Pick Up Artists (PUA’s) who see the dismantling of the world in the increasing platforms for women and LGBTQIA individuals. They have embraced the worst elements of masculinity as their guiding ethos, treating women who have the temerity to exist online and speak without a man’s permission and, god forbid, demand equality and equal rights and the ability to walk down a street or exist in their own homes without fear of being forcibly taken, as if they are poor role models for other women, and evidence of the upsetting of the natural order of things. Harding sheds a stomach-turning light on the corner of the world, online and off, occupied by these individuals, and the very real threat their existence entails.

Don’t believe me? Take a moment and search for the Return of Kings website—also knows as the Internet’s unwashed scrotal sack. I apologize in advance for the horrible, hate-filled excrement you’re about to read: page after page, article after article written by sad, angry men who’ve convinced themselves that all their misfortune is the fault of the world’s women—especially those they find unattractive.

It’s absolutely worth noting that this book is not remotely anti-men. In fact, Harding is a champion of men, and though the numbers of incidents are quite a bit lower than with women, she does touch on sexual assault and abuse faced by men in North America. She merely expects, and not in any way unfairly, for men to be better than our worst stereotypes and cultural expectations often allow—that of the oversexed aggressor only giving in to his natural impulses. It’s like in that episode of The Simpsons when Homer starts biting the air, and if the pie on the stove happens to get in the way of his mouth then so be it—it was asking to be eaten. We’re better than that, though. Harding knows it, and we know it too:

Our daughters deserve better, and our sons are better than that. For as much as feminists are painted as “man-haters,” we’re not the ones suggesting that boys and men lack the ability to think rationally, control their own behavior, or act kindly toward other human beings—even with a boner. We’re the ones who want all of our children to know about meaningful consent, healthy sexuality, and honoring each other’s bodies and boundaries, instead of teaching them that one gender is responsible for managing the other’s helpless animal lust.

That’s what I mean when I say, “We should teach boys not to rape.” We should teach them they’re worth more and capable of more than this narrowly defined caricature of sexuality that favors dominance and aggression over genuine human connection.

 

*Some useful resources mentioned throughout—share and share widely.

NotAlone.gov

KnowYourIX.org

CleryCenter.org

rainn.org

National Sexual Assault Online Hotline

scarleteen.com

http://www.ontario.ca/page/lets-stop-sexual-harassment-violence

Review: The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

21481566>>Published:

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: February 2010

The Broken Kingdoms: November 2010

The Kingdom of Gods: October 2011

Omnibus and The Awakened Kingdom (sequel novella): December 2014

Finally got around to it: January 2016

 

Things are going to be different this year on Backlisted. I’m intending to do fewer but more in-depth reviews, both as a function of how much time I have to write for this blog (between my own fiction writing as well as reviewing for three other publications, that amounts to not a whole hell of a lot), and in an effort to spend more of that time ruminating on the works that matter most to me, without feeling the need to simply pump out a thousand or fifteen hundred words before moving on to the next title in my to-read pile.

And holy shit what a way to start the year.

This trilogy (quartet if you count the novella added to the omnibus) had been recommended to me by at least three people whose taste I trust implicitly yet still I dragged my heels on this more than I care to admit. Why? Because it’s fantasy, and with the exception of K.J. Parker’s Engineer trilogy, I’ve always been a bit hit and miss when it comes to fantasy lit—or more to the point, hesitant to even dive in in the first place. For the record, I’m pretty picky about sci-fi as well, though I’m usually more inclined toward the future speculative side of things than I am vaguely medieval worlds filled with magic, kingdoms, and occasionally elves (who always—always—come across like the most arrogant of pricks). Likely this has to do with having read and greatly disliked The Hobbit at a young age, and then years later having to force myself to make it through to the end of The Lord of the Rings—a truly gruelling task I would not wish on anyone.

I’m making so many friends right now, I’m sure.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that not only was I immediately pulled into Jemisin’s intensely vibrant world, which is so effortlessly realized, but like an addict following his first taste, I now intend to seek out everything else she’s ever published. And again, I don’t even like fantasy. Or so I thought.

It’s fortunate, too, that this comes so quickly on the heels of having read the entirety of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief trilogy, a series that I was very much looking forward to, and in which I was profoundly disappointed. In this sense, The Inheritance Trilogy was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Curious that the exact same thing happened to me a year ago when, over the Christmas break, I read through Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy and was as disappointed in it as I was Rajaniemi’s work, and for the same reasons—a propensity toward ideas over any semblance of narrative cohesion or character depth and development—only to rebound with Kameron Hurley’s exquisite (and brutally violent) Bel Dame Apocrypha. Such is the way of things.

And as with all entries on this site, the longer the review the more plentiful the spoilers. And since this is, without question, the longest review I’ve ever written, well…

 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

The Arameri get their power from this remaining god. He is called the Skyfather, Bright Itempas, and the ancestors of the Arameri were His most devoted priests. He rewarded them by giving them a weapon so mighty that no army could stand against it. They used this weapon—weapons, really—to make themselves rulers of the world.

***

In the first of Jemisin’s books, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we’re introduced to the family line at the crux of the entire series: the Arameri. They are the ruling family of the land and of the Amn people, and devotees of the god Itempas, of whom it is said, during the God’s War that precedes the narrative by many centuries, killed his sister Enefa, and offered his brother Nahadoth to the Arameri as a slave. As can be expected from any family with as much wealth and power as the Arameri, they are revealed to be a brutal, power-obsessed family all-too focused on the “purity” of their highblood status. The seat of their power is a palace within a city, both named Sky. The palace itself floats in the air around an impossibly thin column separating it from the city that bears its name—a clear if narrow sign of the division cultivated between the ruling family and their subjects below.

It’s through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old woman named Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre that we first come to know the Arameri, and to understand the world in which they rule—one where gods and godlings do in fact exist, though several have been enslaved and the rest cast from the mortal realm in the centuries since the God’s War and Bright Itemptas’s vicious retribution. Yeine is a Darr baroness, and the daughter of Kinneth, late, disowned heiress of the Arameri who fled her kingdom, and Dekarta—her father and the current ruler of Sky—following the suspicious murder of her mother. Darr, of which Yeine is a member of the ruling class—an “ennu”—is a matriarchal society, where the men are only called to fight if a situation is truly dire. Otherwise they are designated as the protectors of the home and of the community’s children. Yeine herself is described as a warrior. She has Amn eyes, faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty. Otherwise, I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.

In the book’s opening, Yeine is called to Sky by her grandfather, Dekarta Arameri, to challenge her scheming cousins Scimina and Relad for her grandfather’s rule (the finer details of which—such as the fact that to lose means certain death—are obfuscated until her arrival, when it is too late for her to leave). But it is not just Yeine’s life that is at risk—both Scimina and Relad, though sister and brother, will turn as readily on one another as they will on Yeine to determine who will reign in Dekarta’s footsteps. Thus, alliances must be made, and threats levied. Such is the Arameri way. Throughout all this, Yeine must contend with her cousins’ poor expectations of her. (Scimina is especially cruel and condescending, describing the Darr as “a race that has never been more than savages, no matter how prettily we dress you.”) As well, her gradual realization of what it takes to be considered Arameri. In the words of Yeine’s aunt, being a member of said family means knowing “How to be cruel…. How to spend life like currency and wield death itself as a weapon.

But Yeine is not alone in her time at Sky. Along with several of palace’s helping hands, many of whom she comes to realize are Amn, though not treated with the same degree of respect as highbloods (like the good-natured T’vril), she is occasionally hunted, and desired, by the god and godlings imprisoned by the Arameri: the Lord of the Night Nahadoth, Itempas’s brother, sister, and sometimes lover; Sieh, the Trickster god and the first and oldest of the godlings made from the Three; Kurue, the goddess of wisdom; and Zhakkarn, goddess of war and battle. It’s through the relationships that develop between Yeine and the gods confined within Sky, especially Sieh and Nahadoth, that she learns the truth about the Three—Itempas, Nahadoth, and Enefa—the Big Bang-like astrological phenomenon known as the Maelstrom that birthed them, and the jealousy and resulting war that tore their family asunder.

As the story progresses and Yeine finds herself becoming further embroiled in the lives and plight of the gods surrounding her, she learns an unexpected truth about herself: that when the goddess Enefa was murdered by Itempas, her soul remained, though horribly wounded. Sieh and the other gods discovered Enefa’s soul and placed it within a mortal body—Yeine’s—where it is to be nursed back to health. This helps to clarify certain things—chief among them why life in the universe continued following Enefa’s apparent death, when it is said that the true death of any one of the Three would mean the end of all things, and the unbalancing of creation. Upon learning this, Yeine agrees to ally herself with Nahadoth and the godlings, to assist in ensuring their freedom, in exchange for the protection of her homeland, Darr, regardless of whether the makes it through the succession competition alive.

It’s in the narrative’s final moments, however, that the truth of things is laid bare and, following a sequence of events that sees Yeine murdered to curry favour with Itempas and Scimina turning viciously on her brother Relad (sadly the one character in the story I felt was given the proverbial short end of the stick—often feeling like an afterthought, or a pale echo of his more conniving and terrifying sister), Yeine is reborn as a goddess, the imprisoned gods are freed, and Bright Itempas is thusly and efficiently subdued. Simultaneous with her rebirth, Yeine brings to life a massive World Tree (basically the Yggdrasil from Norse cosmology) to grow up and through the palace of Sky, connecting it to the city below in a very real and material manner—something much more substantial and meaningful than the narrow column that had existed previously, more as a symbol than anything with actual social weight or promise.

From separation to forced unity, the rebirth of Enefa/Yeine brings the Arameri, and Itempas, down to earth, effectively setting things on the slow path to equality, if such a thing is to be achieved in a world so fractured by haves and have-nots. All in all, a rather fantastic, aesthetically powerful means of illustrating the rebuilding that must now take place that the Arameri have literally lost the power of the gods, that their highblood status has taken a severe hit from which it is impossible to rebound, and that they are going to be forced to have increased communication with the world and divergent classes they’d for so long floated carelessly above.

 

The Broken Kingdoms

My education didn’t help. Like most people, I was taught that there were three gods once, and then there was a war between them, which left two. One of them wasn’t actually a god anymore—though he was still very powerful—so really that left just one. (And a great many godlings, but we never saw them.) For most of my life, I was raised to believe that this state of affairs was ideal, because who wants a bunch of gods to pray to when one will do? Then the godlings returned.

Not just them, though. Suddenly the priests began to say odd prayers and write new teaching poems into the public scrolls. Children learned new songs in the White Hall schools. Where once the world’s people had been required to offer their praises only to Bright Itempas, now we were urged to honor two additional gods: a Lord of Deep Shadows and someone called the Gray Lady. When people questioned this, the priests simply said, The world has changed. We must change with it.

You can imagine how well that went over.

***

The second book in the series, The Broken Kingdoms, takes place ten years after the events of the first. It focuses on the city once called Sky, now called Sky-in-Shadow (or simply Shadow), as it exists beneath the shadow of the towering World Tree created during Yeine’s rebirth as a goddess. The Arameri’s power has been diminished if not done away with entirely, and they are now ruled by T’vril, who Yeine installed as Dekarta’s successor at the close of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And alongside the Arameri’s partial dismantling, the world is again overrun by godlings given free reign.

The narrative this time around belongs to a young Maroneh woman named Oree Shoth—a blind artist who can somehow see the magic that surrounds her, especially now that the world is once again flush with it. Oree sells her art to tourists and passers-by on Shadow’s Promenade. Early on she describes herself as such: They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts… they also commented on my smooth, near-black Maro skin…

Like Yeine before her, Oree does not walk through this world alone. Though she has left her Maroneh family behind, to make her own way in the world, she is accompanied by a host of fellow artists, a godling named Madding with whom she was once involved when she was seventeen and new to the city, and a strange man she comes across one night covered in muck—a man who repeatedly discovers new and horrible ways to die (re: kill himself) while always returning to life; a man who Oree can see when he starts to magically glow at the break of daylight. Seeing as the sad, perpetually suicidal man refuses to talk but still gloms on to Oree like a stray dog, she’s forced to name him herself: she calls him Shiny.

Of course it’s clear pretty early on that Shiny is really Itempas in mortal form—stripped of his godhood but not his immortality, forced to wander amongst humans and to learn from them until such time as Nahadoth and Yeine consider him to be redeemed—or merely punished enough. The trick of it all: he has to learn how to love, unconditionally. But while this is pretty obvious from the jump, in no way is Shiny’s journey anything less than utterly compelling. But I digress…

Soon after meeting Shiny, Oree’s world is thrown for a loop when a godling is found murdered in an alley just off the Promenade—one of Madding’s sisters. Madding and other godlings, meanwhile, have a side operation going on selling god’s blood to average mortals, gifting them with magical highs, for a price. During the investigation into the godling’s death that follows, Oree’s magical side begins more and more to reveal itself, independent of Madding’s bloody (literally) influence: as a function of her art she learns she has the ability to create passageways in space. Her magic is unstable, though, and it is eventually revealed that Oree is in fact part demon—a species of humans created by the mating of gods and mortals, believed to be all but wiped out on Itempas’s orders, in the aftermath of the God’s War. Why? Because demon’s blood is anathema to a god’s existence. It is the one thing that can harm them—beyond their catastrophic, universe-shattering infighting that is.

Once Oree’s abilities are discovered, she’s kidnapped by a radical organization known as the House of the Risen Sun that believes the gods are to blame for humanity’s ills, and that Nahadoth especially must be destroyed (because, of course, the Risen Sun is organized my Arameri highbloods who’ve lost a significant amount of status since the freeing of the gods; and because Nahadoth, due to his years of imprisonment, hates the Arameri second only to Itempas—minus the complicated familial-type love he shares with the latter). The Risen Sun, led by the Arameri Serymn and her husband Dateh, aims to use Oree’s blood to construct god-killing weapons, citing the need for vengeance and protection against the changing face of the world. It’s here that Oree learns the truth behind her father’s fateful words: that “There’s no such thing as magic that does no harm.

Of course the Risen Sun don’t realize that were they to succeed and actually kill Nahadoth, all of existence would be negated. The universe previously sustained the death of a god by the fact that Enefa’s soul survived where her body did not; were any of the Three to actually be obliterated from existence, so too would all life cease to be. But the Risen Sun are about as up their own asses as a cult can be, as evidenced by the fact that Dateh is eating the hearts of murdered godlings to gain their strength.

Which is just all kinds of fucked up. Amazing and disturbing and holy shit why didn’t I think of using that in a story? But still, totally fucked up.

Beyond Dateh’s clear and villainous insanity, however, the most frightening thing he does is to clarify to Oree the sad truth about the Arameri and their relationship with Bright Itempas: “We worship Him not because He is the best of our gods, but because He is, or was, the greatest killer among them.” Which, to me, reads as a terrifyingly perfect analogue to those among us, in the real world, who would beat their chests for the God of the Old Testament—a being to be feared, not loved, for the ways in which It can completely, effortlessly, wreck literally all of humanity, and without a shred of remorse.

And of course there is an epic as all hell showdown with Dateh, wherein he’s confronted with the horrors of what he’s done. But as exciting as the climax was—and unexpected, coming after I thought most things had been neatly wrapped up and placed on a shelf—the most fascinating aspect of this second book is in how it humanizes Itempas through Oree’s interaction with him. He’s forced to admit to his mistakes (as much as he’ll admit to anything at this point), and confront the fact that he is learning to love, and indeed is falling in love with a demon—an individual that in a previous life he would have condemned to destruction out of his own capacity for self preservation (and that whole fearing the destruction of the universe thing):

“You’re saying you started the God’s War,” I said. “You’re saying the Nightlord was your lover—that you love him still. You’re saying he’s free now and he’s the one who did this to you.”

In this moment, and many that follow through the remainder of this book and into the next, Itempas, the harshest of the gods, responsible for untold death and destruction, is effectively humanized, and not at all in a way that felt cheap or manipulative. He reveals to Oree that his actions in starting the God’s War were a result of having experienced a moment of utter, incomparable loneliness for which he blamed Enefa—for taking Nahadoth from him, and for being completely incapable of sharing his love.

In the end, he was a spurned lover incapable of being alone, who lashed out at those who loved and cared for him most because change, as it were, was simply not in his nature.

At the close, it’s revealed that Oree was in fact telling the story to another person all along—hers and Itempas’s daughter. After the climax in which she loses her ability to see the magic in the world around her, becoming now entirely blind, she and Itempas go into exile—he a deposed god, she a demon whose existence many fear as being a threat to all. And to add insult to injury, she is visited, well before the birth of her child, by Nahadoth and Yeine, who for the most part sit out the events of the second book—the threat of Nahadoth looms over many of the book’s events, though he rarely makes an appearance. They inform Oree that either she must die, or that she must abandon Itempas, for he no longer suffers with her by his side. And Nahadoth especially is not willing to let him off the hook after only ten years spent wandering the Earth in pain and isolation.

While the ending of this book is an emotional stomach punch, Oree nevertheless rises to all occasions. Despite her blindness, she is never treated as less than, nor is she ever placed in a physically compromised position by any of the gods. Any persecution she faces throughout is not a result of her disability but of her heritage as a demon. And that she survives and accomplishes all she does, without help from, and often in spite of the gods, is why, at the end of all things, she emerged as my favourite character in the entire series.

 

The Kingdom of Gods

A godling defying a god. It seemed impossible. We were such low things compared to them; they could kill us so easily. Yet we were not powerless. Some among us—myself, once upon a time—were strong enough to challenge them directly, at least for a few moments. And even the least of us could keep secrets and stir up trouble.

One godling’s mischief did not trouble me. But if many of us were involved, conspiring across mortal generations, implementing some complex plan, it was no longer mischief. It was a revolt. One far more dangerous than whatever the northerners planned for the Arameri.

Because if the godlings revolted against the gods, the gods would fight back, as they had done when threatened by the demons long ago. But godlings were not as fragile as demons, and many of us had no vested interest in keeping the mortal realm safe. That would mean a second God’s War, worse than the first one.

This had been brewing right under my nose for fifty years, and I hadn’t a clue.

Beyond me, in silent rebuke, the bloody sky went gradually black.

***

Right away one notices the tone of the third book in this series is decidedly different than what’s come before. The narrator this go around, the Trickster Sieh, informs the reader up front not to expect the same old tricks: You will not reach the end and suddenly learn I have been talking to my other soul or making a lullaby of my life for someone’s unborn brat. And he’s right. Down to the very structure—split into four parts where the previous books were only divided by chapters—the third book in the Inheritance Trilogy is a decidedly unique but no less riveting affair. And upon reflection, its focus—a godling faced with mortality—is a perfect third act for this series, having spent the first two books exploring immortality and godhood from the perspective of mortals, to varying degrees (Oree, of course, being a demon).

Far more time has passed between the second and third books than between the first and second—many decades as a matter of fact. It begins when Sieh meets and befriends two Arameri highbloods—children. He’s wary at first, because children or not, a highblood is a highblood. The memories of his incarceration are not so easily wiped clear. In spite of this, he is intrigued by the children and offers to meet them again, one year from their first encounter. Things continue like this until the children manage to encourage Sieh to become their friend, and the three of them take a blood oath to that effect. In the moment the oath is made, however, and their blood is shared, Sieh is hurtled away without knowledge of what has happened to him, how much time has passed, or even where he is. When he wakes in Nahadoth’s care, he learns that not only have eight years passed, but also that he has become afflicted with, of all things, mortality.

Upon returning to the mortal realm and to Sky, Sieh seeks out the two Arameri children with whom he took the oath—Shahar and Dekarta, named for two of the family’s most important (re: infamous) rulers. Their mother Remath, granddaughter of T’vril, is the new ruler of the Amn people. When Sieh is reunited with Shahar, he learns from her what really happened that faithful day—from their perspective:

Eight years ago,” she said in that same clipped, edged tone, “you and I and Deka took an oath of friendship. Immediately upon which you unleashed a flare of magic so powerful that it destroyed the Nowhere Stair and much of the underpalace—and then you vanished, leaving Deka and me buried in the rubble with more bones broken than whole.”

Sieh, of course, never intended for any of that to happen—from the children getting hurt to his forced mortality. Worse, he learns that the boy, Deka, was blamed for what happened and sent away to become a scrivener. Despite his selfish, childish nature, Sieh wishes to get to the bottom of things and seeks out what might have caused the oath they took to have such grave effect.

Simultaneously, The Kingdom of the Gods goes into terrific detail to illustrate the degree in which the world is changing as the Arameri’s control continues to slip. The World Tree still grows throughout the palace of Sky, splitting it into inconvenient pathways and disrupting the Arameri’s sense of a power in a very material way. What we learn as we follow Sieh’s investigation is that the Arameri line is dwindling in accordance with their diminished power, and that highbloods have been the target of attacks and assassinations for some time.

Eventually Sieh’s journey leads him into the paths of several characters around which the central themes and conflicts of the entire trilogy’s narrative to some extent revolve: Ahad, a man shaped from the mortal prison Nahadoth was forced into during his Arameri captivity; Glee Shoth, the grown daughter of Oree and Itempas, who keeps the latter safe from those who might seek to destroy or abuse him; and the villain of the piece, Kahl Avenger—the offspring of Sieh and the original Enefa.

The existence of the last of these individuals is one of the most interesting and unexpected twists in the entire series. Prior to the God’s War, it is revealed, Enefa courted Sieh and made for him a child from his seed. But as Sieh’s nature is forever that of a child himself, the maturity inherent in having a child proved anathema to his existence, almost killing him. It would have, actually, had Enefa not hidden the child, Kahl, where no one, god or mortal, would know to look, and subsequently locking the knowledge of his existence from Sieh’s memory. But when Enefa was killed, the chains on Kahl’s imprisonment were loosened; and when Enefa’s soul was reborn in Yeine, they were shattered altogether, and for decades, “Kahl, son of death and mischief, Lord of Retribution, was loosed upon the realms to do as he would.

And what’s Kahl’s endgame? The creation of a God’s Mask, which would afford the slighted individual the power of a fourth god, thus upsetting the balance of the Three and throwing all of existence into disarray, calling forth the Maelstrom from which all life began to subsequently wipe clear the universe.

Really though, he’s just a petulant shit frustrated that his parents never paid him any attention.

I’m of course being reductive here, but Kahl’s ambition serves as an interesting parallel to Itempas and the rashness of his actions, which also could have destroyed all of creation had he truly been successful in killing Enefa the first time. And really, that’s what this book is all about: parallels and understandings. Much of this is shown in how Sieh grows and matures, aging rapidly as he does, but also in Itempas, who has changed considerably since the second book and now willingly and gratefully places his life in the hands of his demon offspring, Glee. He has gone over the course of three books from viewing the mortals as subservient and the demons as a pure threat, to living amongst, loving, and fighting for mortals, and viewing his child, and all demons, as a necessary countermeasure to the gods themselves—because balance must exist in all facets of the known universe. And sometimes even a god needs to be taught this very simple lesson. Similarly, Sieh learns the value in having a life to give, and others to give it too, and is discovering such things not only from his interactions with Dekarta and Shahar, but also in the troubled and difficult, though evolving relationship he finds with the subdued and surprisingly level-headed Itempas.

But of course it’s in Sieh’s love for the two Arameri children, now adults, in which his biggest transformation takes place—especially the passionate relationship that develops between he and Dekarta following the latter’s return from exile as a powerful scrivener not to be trifled with.

What’s fascinating is that over the course of this one book, Jemisin manages to reframe the entirety of the Three’s troubled history within the smaller, more compact narrative of Sieh, Shahar, and Dekarta (including the very end of this book, in which it’s revealed the story of the Three is, in some ways, being retold and gifted to a new generation). And in doing so, she manages to also satisfy and resolve the conflict between the Three, giving them what was needed for old wounds to be resolved, and new promises made.

Behind all of this, though, is Kahl’s long con, using the northerners and those otherwise dissatisfied with the remains of the Arameri’s rule to don similar but more unstable god masks and sacrifice themselves to his greater good, in the process killing Remath, destroying Sky, and toppling the World Tree in one of the series’ most amazingly well-realized sequences. Which is to say nothing of the intensity that follows as Kahl, having assumed for himself a true god’s power, calls forth the Malestrom to bring about the end of all things:

The Whorl was not as high as Sky had been, but it was as good a vantage point as any. From there, the heavens were a terrible, awe-inspiring sight. More than half of the sky had been devoured by the swirling, wavering transparency. As the sun rose and passed into the space of change, its shape turned sickly and distorted, its light flickering on our skins like a campfire. This was not an illusion. What we saw was literal, despite the impossibility of the angles and distance. Even Tempa’s rules for physics and time had been distorted by the Maelstrom’s presence. Thus we beheld the slow and tortured end of our sun as it was torn apart and drawn into the great maw. There would be light for a while longer, and then darkness such as no mortal has ever seen.

I was reminded when reading the above of the television show Farscape. For years, they teased the existence of a “wormhole weapon”—a device of such terrible power that to use it would mean the end of all life in the galaxy and beyond. After four seasons and a movie that served as the series finale, they finally employed said wormhole weapon, creating a flame-wreathed singularity in space that would double in size every few seconds until it swallowed existence whole. Needless to say, after so many years’ worth of build up, it did not disappoint. This was the image that sprang to mind as I entered into the final conflict of this book, and the Second God’s War, as the Maelstrom, this almost impossible to imagine non-entity that had been discussed in hushed tones for two full books, was brought to life, and was actually, genuinely, terrifying as fuck.

And this right here is why I adore this series so much. While it excels, effortlessly, at representation, at discussing race and class, at normalizing same-sex relationships and having gender-fluid characters (Nahadoth) and disabled characters (Oree) at its core, at plot and pacing and tossing about analogues to our world that feel so fully thought out it seems almost obvious, it also manages to be absolutely epic in scope, never disappointing or becoming confounding in its action. And at the height of such devastating events, to find a way to bring it all back down to Earth, so to speak, with a hand on a former lover’s shoulder and the words By such small gestures are wars ended. Such is the strength of Jemisin’s writing. As endings go, this was damn near perfect.

 

The Awakened Kingdom

You were wanted! Mama and Papa and Naha wanted you lots. You know this, and you know there is a space carved into existence which is shaped like a godling, and that godling is supposed to be you! The hole was left when Biggest Sibling went away. By that I mean, he died. His name was Sieh. Now imagine you are supposed to be Sieh! Well, not really. Sieh is dead. But you were made to fill the hole he left behind—to be the Trickster and the wind, mischief and cruelty, the cat and the boy and the cranky old man. Imagine the Three have shaped you so, so carefully to match the hole. You will be different from Sieh-that-was, but you will be important in the same way. You will be powerful in the same way. The planets will follow you and the mortals will tell tales of you and you will steal all the suns, but only keep the ones that want to be your friend. Without a Trickster the universe will not end, bit it will be a much duller place.

***

The fourth entry in this series, a sequel novella that takes place three hundred years following the close of the third book, is a decidedly quieter affair that feels more like an extended coda than it does a full-fledged tale. (That’s not intended as a slight, by the way—the narrative is substantial and worthy enough to be included in the omnibus.) It’s told from yet another new perspective—that of a godling, the first child of Itempas and Yeine following Sieh’s death at the end of the Second God’s War. This new god is still learning the ropes, which sometimes means accidentally levelling cities or shouting at a register somewhat torturous to mortal ears. To this end, she goes to Earth to learn from mortals how to be a better god. As Itempas puts it when discussing the untold strength of human beings and why it’s important to study them: “They were made to endure death on a scale we cannot imagine.”

The new godling, after some fumbling around, decides to name herself Shill, and befriends a young Darr man named Eino. Eino’s grandmother Fahno is a former “enulai”—a mortal from whom a god learns in a mentor-mentee relationship. This position, as it were, did not exist prior to the Compact, an agreement made three hundred years earlier when, following Kahl’s defeat and the world’s rather narrow brush with obliteration, the Three left mortals to manage life on their own terms, so as not to unwillingly involve innocent life in their squabbles and occasional wars.

As Shill begins to taste what it means to be a mortal, she sees in Eino a young man struggling to accept the society in which he’s been raised—one that has, over the centuries, reduced men to mere objects to be married off, for status and/or wealth it would seem. The courting of men in this society includes a gift: a knife that their future/new wife will use to circumcise them, as if to enforce their ownership. The reasons for this are told by way of another enulai named Mikna:

But not long after Skyfall, “Mikna continued, “in the new golden age that Darr had begun to enjoy with the ending of the Bright, and the rebuilding after the war—our men turned on us. Not all, certainly, but enough to pose a real threat…. That’s the way of men, you see, when women don’t keep them in check.

Shill, though, being an innocent for whom all things are currently equal, and for whom histories and politics are largely unknown, is baffled by the rights that have been taken from Eino and the other Darr men. And in her quest to learn her nature, as it were, she discovers in the unbalanced Darr society that hers is to be the embodiment of balance, capable of bestowing power to those who need it, at the expense of her own wellbeing. Because, as Yeine tells her, power cannot be given but only taken. Too much is a danger, as can be too little. This, then, is Shill’s purpose—her nature: to regulate; to delegate. To be the peace the blossoming world needs—the very antithesis of a god’s rule.

While The Awakened Kingdom is certainly a more light-hearted finale than I would have expected, given the bleak, near-cosmic destruction of the previous book, it’s quite satisfying on its own merits. Though Shill’s voice is a rather dramatic departure from that of Yeine, Oree, and Sieh, it functions almost as an exhalation, as if telling the reader “this is going to be a little different, and that’s okay—you can un-tighten the giant fucking knot in your chest.” Because as captivating and exciting as the trilogy was, it was also rather exhausting—not in a bad way, but in the way one feels like they need a breather after a pretty fucking amazing rollercoaster.

But Shill’s brief tale is not merely a surface-level romp to show the reader what became of the world following a few centuries of life without the influence of the Three, or for that matter the Arameri. It also serves as a thematic bow of sorts to many of the more pressing themes presented throughout, such as the equality gap between certain races and genders (an intriguing and welcome flip of the narrative that exists in a lot of fantasy lit, where men are the kings and warriors and the like, while women tend to the home and protect the children), and the presence—and danger—of magic in the hands of those not fit to wield its power.

Additionally, ending things with a tale focusing on the Darr and not the Arameri was a lovely way to bookend things, in a sense bringing Yeine’s journey full circle. For when she visits the people for whom she once sought the power to fight, or at least to defend against her cousin Scimina’s encroaching forces, she is now very aware that power alone would not satisfy their problems, nor would it absolve them of their sins, as it would not do for any nation on the Earth. In this way, Shill, her child, is brought about to be the thing that she could not be to Darr as a mortal, or to any nation as a god: the ability to empower safely, and with the knowledge and wisdom to do so in a way that would not grant any one group of people more power or authority than they deserve, or would know how to handle. This is also a pointed stab at what the Arameri represented at the start of everything, during the time of the Bright: cruelty, enslavement, and oppression—the poisons of power unchecked.

At the end of all things, the series is not just about power, or corruption, or the varied social strata represented throughout; it’s about family, first and foremost. It’s about how no matter their scope or strength or influence—be it a trio of gods that loves one another as strongly as they hate, fucking and spawning and battling to the death at the dawn of time and beyond, or a new trio of souls formed in a different universe, or possibly in an afterlife, at a much later time and in a place known only to them—family, by blood or by choice, is at the heart of every glorious success and every unimaginable tragedy one can consider. This is the strength of Jemisin’s work—beyond the florid writing and goddamn stunning imagery, this series survives on its ability to turn even the mightiest of gods into flawed, fucked-up individuals as capable of as many good deeds and miracles as they are back-stabbings and affairs.

As is likely incredibly fucking obvious to anyone who’s read this far, I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about this series. Sure, there are a few things I would have loved to see padded out—as mentioned earlier, Relad in the first book is a rather slight character until the plot demands he step forward and offer Yeine an alliance. Additionally, I would love to have had some resolution with Oree’s friends and fellow artists from the Promenade in the second book, and the scrivener corps in the third. Oh, and there was not nearly enough of the godling Lil the Hunger. She absolutely stole every scene she was in—her and her enormous mouth of rotating, buzzsaw teeth. Just give me an entire book with her as the protagonist and I will be happy.

But these aren’t so much points against the series, or even missed opportunities, as they are simple wishes for more. In no way did I feel the narrative was lacking or void of any one thing or another.

The older I get and the more I read, the harder I find it is for me to feel the rush of excitement or joy I used to gain from just picking up practically any old book. But more than those sensations, these days I find satisfaction to be my magical, elusive unicorn in the woods—that thing that I almost never feel, the sense that what you’ve read could only have been written by this one person, and that they’ve shown you their very best hand. The most recent instances I can think of where I felt this way have been in books that I now consider among my favourites, regardless of genre: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá; the previously mentioned Bel Dame Apocrypha, by Kameron Hurley. These are all books that twigged my specific loves and interests so strongly as to feel they were not so much things I discovered as they were written for me.

This is how I felt after finishing Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. This was, truly, one of the most satisfying reads I have had in quite some time, and I can’t recommend it enough.

 

2016: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

1. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
2. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
3. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Kingdom of Gods – N.K. Jemisin
4. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Awakened Kingdom – N.K. Jemisin
5. The Society of Experience – Matt Cahill
6. The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
7. Generation Loss – Elizabeth Hand
8. Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand
9. Widow Basquiat – Jennifer Clement
10. On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube
11. Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It – Kate Harding
12. The Passion According to G.H. – Clarice Lispector
13. The Monstrous – Ellen Datlow (ed.)
14. The Mercy Journals – Claudia Casper
15. Blame – Trevor Davison (unpublished manuscript)
16. White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi
17. Straight to the Head – Fraser Nixon
18. God in Pink – Hasan Namir
19. Practical Jean – Trevor Cole
20. The Angels of Our Better Beasts – Jerome Stueart (unpublished manuscript)
21. City of the Lost – Kelley Armstrong
22. Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine
23. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
24. Job Shadowing – Malcolm Sutton
25. Bad Things Happen – Kris Bertin
26. The Horrors – Charles Demers
27. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
28. Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett
29. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
30. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
31. The Extra Cadaver Murder – Roy Innes (unpublished manuscript)
32. Silver Screen Fiend – Patton Oswalt
33. The Heartbeat Harvest – Mark Jaskowski (unpublished manuscript/re-read)
34. The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s – Jay Ingram
35. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
36. Black Moon – Kenneth Calhoun
37. It’s An Honest Ghost – John Goldbach
38. Weekend – Jane Eaton Hamilton
39. And Again – Jessica Chiarella
40. Even This Page is White – Vivek Shraya
41. The Opposite House – Helen Oyeyemi
42. Leak – Kate Hargreaves
43. I’m Not Scared of You or Anything – Jon Paul Fiorentino
44. Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill
45. Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You – Jill Sexsmith
46. Pedal – Chelsea Rooney
47. North American Lake Monsters – Nathan Ballingrud
48. Rockets Versus Gravity – Richard Scarsbrook
49. Lexicon – Max Barry
50. Untitled/Life Story – Jenna Avery (unpublished manuscript)
51. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid
52. The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee
53. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman
54. The Sandman: The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman
55. The Sandman: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman
56. The Sandman: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman
57. The Sandman: A Game of You – Neil Gaiman
58. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections – Neil Gaiman
59. The Sandman: Brief Lives – Neil Gaiman
60. The Sandman: Worlds’ End – Neil Gaiman
61. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones – Neil Gaiman
62. The Sandman: The Wake – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Endless Nights – Neil Gaiman
64. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman
64. The Humanity of Monsters – Michael Matheson, ed.
65. Hair Side, Flesh Side – Helen Marshall
66. Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir – Julie Salverson
67. Evenings & Weekends – Andrew Baulcomb
68. The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor Lavalle
69. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger – Stephen King
70. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor
71. Three Years With the Rat – Jay Hosking
72. Testament – Vickie Gendreau
73. I, Death – Mark Leslie
74. This Census-Taker – China Miéville
75. The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville
76. You Are Having a Good Time – Amie Barrodale
77. Guy – Jowita Bydlowska
78. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
79. Gutshot – Amelia Gray
80. Tokyo Decadence – Ryu Murakami
81. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Miéville
82. Shadow of the Colossus – Nick Sutner
83. Chrono Trigger – Michael P. Williams
84. The Dilettantes – Michael Hingston
85. Death Valley – Susan Perly
86. Survivor’s Club – Lauren Beukes
87. Bottle Rocket Hearts – Zoe Whittall
88. Border Markers – Jenny Ferguson
89. Anne & Kit/Untitled Manuscript – Michael Matheson (Unpublished Manuscript)
90. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
91. Mad Cow – Alexis Kienlen (Unpublished Manuscript)
92. A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
93. Two Brothers – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
94. Becoming Unbecoming – Una
95. The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall
96. Stories of Your Life and Other Stories – Ted Chiang
97. You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain – Phoebe Robinson
98. Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories – Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay
99. Everything Belongs to the Future – Laurie Penny
100. Pacn Heat – Terri Favro and A.G. Pasquella
101. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
102. Downwind, Alice – C.C. Adams (unpublished manuscript)
103. Five Roses – Alice Zorn
104. Swing Time – Zadie Smith

Review: Moving Parts, by Lana Pesch

Book-Cover-Moving-Parts_large>>Published: October 2015

>>Finally got around to it: December 2015

They had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not to do it. The pact. Cody kept saying over and over how he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He was done. The guilt about Joseph, his heartbreak over Astrid, the shame he woke up with every day. Hardly a breeze on the lake. The boat was barely moving, only a slight rocking on the water. He tied Cody’s hands and feet together like a calf’s at a rodeo. He should have gone to Canadian Tire and got new twine. The rope was bristly against his hands as he wove figure eights in and out of Cody’s legs, each end secured with a sailor’s knot.

“You’re a good—”

In one motion, Brent stuffed a sport sock deep into Cody’s mouth and straddled him. Cody’s eyes widened. Brent placed his thumbs together just below Cody’s Adam’s apple. Cody’s eyes closed. His lashes were long, like a girl’s, against his tanned face. His black hair was windswept and messy from driving with the windows down. Brent gripped his best friend’s neck like it was any other thing: a basketball, a can of paint, a plastic patio chair. He positioned his hands as if he was about to pop a cork and pressed his fingers against Cody’s throat. Not even a groan from behind the sock. The boat floated in the current’s natural flow. The sunlight glinted on the surface of the water and looked like a bag of new screws scattered over concrete. It was like some kind of backwards ritual. The opposite of baptism. Brent applied pressure, and Cody wriggled his feet at the bottom of the boat. He pressed harder. A breeze wafted through the birches as if to say, watching, watching.

***

Comprised of nine stories, Lana Pesch’s first collection of short fiction is a character-centric exploration of individuals at or near crossroads of one sort or another. For the most part these forks are emotionally driven, as people embark on new relationships or jettison old ones for the promise, or even the mere possibility, of something better. In a few of the stories, paths diverge in less obvious ways: a person re-examines what they thought they knew about themselves via the criminal actions of a childhood friend; a nephew is forced to accept the inevitable passing of a loved one as he navigates the schism between his mother and a medical specialist; and one young man has to figure out for himself what “brotherhood” truly means, and to decide whether or not to cross certain ethical boundaries as a result.

The opening story, “Moving Parts,” introduces us to Edie and Ditch, who catch sight of one another in the cashier’s line at a No Frills. Ditch proceeds to follow Edie to her car in order to ask her out. And while he’s the sort of person whose train of thought travels down the darker side of things, Edie’s narrative spirals into future possibilities of what their lives together might entail, should they hit it off. It’s a sweet if simple opener about expectations, fears, and the reality in taking a chance.

In “Deffer’s Last Dance,” a young financial mind’s uncle suffers a stroke. The narrative follows the main character through the crucial first forty-eight hours, which will determine whether or not his uncle lives, and what type of existence might follow. To help navigate this difficult time, the uncouth corpse of a homeless man befriends the distraught nephew and attempts to impart upon him a certain degree of afterlife wisdom.

“Brotherhood,” the strongest story in the collection, is a dark tale of childhood friends and the lengths one considers in order to honour a pact made years prior. The narrative follows Brent and Cody, two young men whose lives have remained somewhat intertwined all the way into adulthood. But Cody harbours many dark secrets, including an extraordinarily diminished sense of self and years of stockpiled guilt for the unintentional death of his younger brother. When Cody calls on Brent to obey the letter of their pact, if not the law, the resulting actions threaten to destroy whatever equilibrium exists in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones. It’s intimate and effective storytelling.

An interesting pairing with “Brotherhood,” “Natural Life” explores to striking effect the divergences in childhood friendships as one young woman working for a Fifth Estate-style documentary series travels south to visit a former friend whom she’d not seen in years, imprisoned now for her participation in the murder of an elderly woman during the attempted theft of a mobile home. While “Brotherhood” explored this sort of break in understanding from an immediately personal point of view, in “Natural Life” there already exists such a divide, and it’s the main character’s goal to understand its development, and to marry the memory of the child she knew with the criminal now sitting in front of her. While I prefer the narrative in “Brotherhood,” the writing in “Natural Life” is among the strongest in the collection, as Pesch delicately constructs the language of a woman experiencing an apparent lack of “self” and consequence, straddling the line of psychopathy.

One of my favourite moments in the entire collection, however, comes from a good but not especially great story. “Chewing Slower is a Sign of Mindfulness” follows a middle-aged woman on a bus trip from Kingston to Toronto as she reflects on her third failed marriage. Near the story’s end, she is out walking a dog to whom she is able to say everything she only wishes she could say to her destructive soon-to-be-ex-husband. And of course, the dog reacts adorably, as a dog would when addressed enthusiastically. It’s a small moment, but a very human one… despite one half of the conversation being canine. The emotional disarmament works exceedingly well.

But not every story in the collection is as strong as the entries already mentioned. “Habits of Creatures,” a series of vignettes coalescing around a Thanksgiving dinner during which a husband announces he’s leaving his wife for another man, is entertaining but light on character depth. Similarly, “The Rogues and Scoundrels Among Us,” a story masquerading as a letter of complaint about a company’s shoddy, brutally painful waxing strips, has a lot of fun with its premise but in the end offers little in the way of an emotional core.

It’s only the final two stories, though—“Faster Miles an Hour” and “Landing Area”—where I found myself rather disinterested in and detached from the narratives being told. The latter follows two women, an artist and a pilot, brought together after the pilot crashes her plane in the woods. The former… well I couldn’t tell you about that story if I had to as, truthfully, it simply didn’t resonate with me on any level.

If I had one additional complaint to lodge against this collection, it would be with the interior voice of the nephew at the centre of “Deffer’s Last Dance.” To be frank, much as I enjoyed the story for it’s slight supernatural twist, its tone was entirely off-putting. I’m speaking specifically about the nephew’s thoughts as he, while hearing about his uncle’s condition from a medical specialist, is also thinking rather extensively about his inappropriately timed hard-ons, not to mention what he’d like to do to the medical specialist currently discussing his uncle’s lack of options. Maybe it’s just me, but this all felt very out of place and inauthentic—it read as if written by someone imagining how a man must think based on the loosest and most stereotypical of ideas, and as a result almost destroyed my interest in said narrative. It was by the strength of its larger plot and character work that the story did not buckle beneath this unfortunate misstep in tone.

Despite the aforementioned issues and misgivings, I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection—enough that I read it in a single sitting. Pesch’s work isn’t especially flavourful or image heavy, but her command of character and voice is (mostly) quite strong. This is an enjoyable if not exceptional collection of work and I’d be curious to see what she does next.