I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.
Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.
Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.
The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.
The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.
To start (and to state my conclusion), this is a fantastic book with brilliant worldbuilding that confounds traditional characterizations of nature, government, allegiances and magic.
Nature is out to get you, vindictive and vengeful. The system uses gifted individuals like animals, their enslavement preordained and accepted by all as a part of the natural order of things. Selfishness and brutality are enshrined in a hybrid of law and religion known as stonelore, which also provides guidelines for the survival of a Season – a period of tectonic, volcanic upheaval that occurs when vengeful Earth makes her festering hatred for mankind felt.
Orogenes are the magic-wielders of this world. Capable of sensing and influencing the seismic activity around them. At once necessary and feared, they are able to cause and prevent the very thing everyone fears most – seismic activity. The Guardians control the orogenes, ruthlessly, keeping everyone safe through a form of indoctrination and partial enslavement of orogenes.
Being born an orogene is to be born into a life of self-hatred, knowing you represent all that everyone fears and that your society will kill you sooner than let you breathe the same air. The day your parents give you up to a Guardian, they will be happy to see the back of you.
People live in comms, communal arrangements akin to fortified villages, designed to survive the Seasons when they come. They do this by keeping out those who would steal the comm’s stockpiles and by ensuring limiting its members to those who can contribute, and never more than the comm is able to feed. This is considered a good thing. It is written in the lore.
Into this stable, accepted but somewhat unpleasant context, Jemisin pours her characters. We follow them through three separate timelines that interrelate in ways that gradually become apparent around the middle of the novel. Jemisin’s world is a rich tapestry cleverly and thoughtfully woven to provide a coherent and satisfying environment for the story. This is the greatest strength of the novel, in my opinion.
The story is the second strong point – there are actors and factions in significant number, although the main characters are kept to a disciplined minimum, allowing us to keep track of how we feel about each of them, and follow their desires, constraints and difficulties in great detail. These characters have roles, by which I mean they play a significant role that goes beyond their desire to satisfy their own needs – they have little choice in this, it follows them like a curse. A lesser writer would have written about prophecies, fate or destiny, but Jemisin describes the events, and we see the pattern ourselves for what it is.
The story leaves a lot unanswered, as befits the first book of a series, but I felt a comforting subplot was missing from the narrative – something that would provide at least a sense of resolution at the end of the book rather than a fairly long list of open questions that no doubt lead to further questions.
I had only one real problem with the novel, and that was with the relentless attention of the sexual oppression of the characters. There is not a single one who is not either in some way sexually oppressed, violated or abused, or either gay, bisexual, transgender, androgynous or cross-dressing. Most can tick at least one box from both lists.
While I applaud and encourage the inclusion of these elements into characters in novels, their omnipresence in The Fifth Season felt “shoehorned-in” by the final third of the book. A new character’s introduction at this point leads to a patient wait for the big reveal when they will turn out to have been raped as a child, to actually be the opposite gender I thought they were, or turn out to not be a gender at all, or a “Breeder” or a sexual surrogate or something. This isn’t a problem per se, but felt somehow cloying by the end of the book. It isn’t a function of, and doesn’t contribute to, the overall story, so it feels unnecessary. Perhaps I will get used to this by the next book and it will become part of the story and less of a distraction. I hope so.
This minor gripe aside, the world as built by Jemisin is a glorious landscape for the construction of a fantasy novel, a new take on magic and its presence and role in the world, and I look forward to the next installment. The broad recognition this book has garnered is well-earned.
I enjoyed a thoughtful post on Charles Stross’ blog recently, saying good things about the Urban Fantasy genre, and I was inspired to go looking for a novel that might get me back into it.
My issue with urban fantasy is that if I have to read another scene about a breathless teenager falling in love with a vampire or yet another sexual domination metaphor dressed in werewolf tropes, I might just have to write off the genre entirely, and I know that’s not fair.
The reason I know it’s not fair is because we have works in this genre that, even if they aren’t always to my personal taste, are unambiguously good. Be it the idea behind Mortal Instruments or the deep well of new ideas that made up the Harry Potter franchise, or the deeper, more intricate and fantastical Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which took the language of London and wove an incredibly rich tapestry. Unfortunately, for each of these comes a tidal wave of pulp concerning mythical creatures spouting incessant clichés.
I was quite keen, therefore to read The Invisible Library since it was quite highly recommended for the originality of its concept. I bought it on Kindle and swallowed it whole over an afternoon.
I suppose that’s the first thing to say about the book; this is not like The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, where my reading slows down because of the density of the pattern being woven. This is a fun read, and the pages are turned quickly. You will not need to keep track of the movements of dozens of characters, nor will it be necessary (or necessarily possible) to understand the motivations of several of the characters. The book is about the action that occurs, and to a certain extent the secrets being kept.
Our protagonist, Irene, works for The Library. Capitalisation is important, The Library is not any library, it sits outside of time and space and exists for the sole purpose of collecting and preserving the works of fiction from different alternate worlds. Irene is an agent of the library, and she goes into these worlds and collects books for the library at the behest of senior librarians, such as her mentor, Coppelia.
The library also exists on the periphery of a struggle between the forces of chaos and the forces of order. By definition linked to the forces of order, the library has to be careful of chaos, which manifests in various alternate realities through the appearance of illogical things or impossible science, such as vampires, irrational magic, unexplainable mechanisms and more generally, the fae.
Irene is sent to collect a book from a world that is somewhat too far down the chaos end of the spectrum for comfort, and she soon discovers that the book she has been sent to find is important to others also, possibly critically important to all concerned, and that these others are prepared to go to great and violent lengths to obtain it.
So it’s an adventure mixed in with a detective novel, with some alternate realities and magical creatures thrown in.
I had second thoughts when I realised that I would be reading about alternate universes – another trope all too often abused – but it was well managed here, in that it gave meaning to the illogicality of much of the fantastical things that go on in the rest of the book. If glamours and charms work outside of a solid system of magic, it is because we are in an alternate world that is corrupted by the forces of chaos. Since these break down cause and effect and therefore open the gate to the irrational and the impossible, and in the context of this story, this is most definitely not a good thing.
Irene is a likeable protagonist, and even if adventurous librarians is not bursting with originality as a concept, the nature of this library (somewhat irrational in and of itself, if you ask me), is deeply original and very interesting.
This will no doubt become a series, I believe the second book is already out. I will probably read it because I enjoyed the first one. Let’s hope that the originality can keep coming and that the framework laid out in this first book is not the entirety of the edifice. If there is more to the world-building in the coming volumes, there might turn out to be a very good series behind this excellent novel.
A grand novel by Robert Jackson Bennett, brought to my attention through its nomination for a World Fantasy Award, City of Stairs is many things. It is a spy thriller. It is the concluding tome in an Epic never written. It is a fantasy novel that plays with the genre the way a cat plays with the loose thread on your favourite sweater.
The Epic landscaping involves two cities, Bulikov and Ghaladesh. The former used to be the seat of the world, built and maintained by six Divinities of varying persuasions, and the capital city of the Continent. The latter is the capital of Saypur, across the South Seas, a country that spend most of its history under the Continent’s thumb, before it’s hero, The Kaj, invented weapons capable of laying low the Divinities themselves, and at the moment of their destruction, all that they had wrought ceased to be.
That moment, known as the Blink, savaged the Continent, knocking it abruptly backward in its development and into a state of chaos. Saypur led a peaceful invasion in the wake of this short war, bringing a semblance of order to the Continent, and creating in the process a deeply-felt resentment in the majority of the population.
Into this morass walks a Foreign Ministry agent, a sort of spy, if you will, from Saypur, called Shara. She is going to Bulikov, or what is left of the once-great city, to investigate the murder of someone dear to her. This now-dead person used to be a professor who was researching the history of the Continent and its Divinities. This is something that only citizens of Saypur can do, since any mention of Divinities, and any symbol that might refer to them, is outlawed on the Continent according to the Worldly Regulations.
What follows is a fantastic tale of gradually fading magic dating back to the time of the Divinities some 70 years ago. A multitude of objects maintain some semblance of their former power, remain miraculous. Some spells, referred to again as miracles, still seem to work despite the disappearance of the Divinities. In a manner that students of real modern history will recognise, the citizens of Bulikov and the Continent are deeply resentful of not only the occupying presence of their conquerors, but also the deliberate repression of their belief system and the humiliation, both real and imagined, imposed upon them by the victors. There simmers a reservoir of rebellion, and unhealthy things are afoot.
City of Stairs is first and foremost an exercise in world-building. The system of magic and nature of the Divinities is unique, interesting, and provides plenty of opportunity for plot twists as the underlying fabric of this world is revealed to us.
The political backdrop is also quite fully formed, with detail painted in where necessary (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example), and provides for a rich reservoir of nationalistic resentment that ably drives the story forward, motivating many of the main actors.
The detective story, spy novel and political intrigue are perhaps all too closely tied together, as we grow to realise that these are not different threads, but part of the same picture, and the characters we are following are not random heroes, but predictable heroes, once we learn of their own origin stories. I found this part of the book a little too convenient. I read another review that compared one character to Aragorn, but that is too generous – Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings, had a self-determined reason to be exactly where he was, whereas Sigrud is there by virtue of coincidence. It’s all a little too neat for me.
The only other criticism I have is that I found some of the miracles worked by the Divinities a little trite. If there is magic in the world, and we give the name “Divinity” to the one who created this or that particular miracle, I feel that the miracle in question ought to be more meaningful than a cantrip that allows one to sneak into a monastery for a quick shag. Maybe that’s just me…
I found the story extremely entertaining, the world is fascinating and the concept of a civilization recovering from the loss of its very active and supportive Divinities is very original. I also feel that a lot of what needs to happen for this world to come to any sort of equilibrium has yet to happen, and so there is lots of scope for further books in this universe. I’m usually not a fan of serial novels set in the same universe because it all too often seems driven by a combination of commercial interests and a lack of new ideas, but I could certainly stand to read another novel set in this world, so it’s perhaps a good thing that another one is gestating as we speak (and a third in the planning stages).
I happily recommend this novel to readers of fantasy looking for new ideas to nourish their imaginations that go beyond finding another word for “goblin” or a new take on elvish culture, and I fully understand how it came to be nominated for the World Fantasy Awards.
The World Fantasy Award nominees have been announced, causing my reading list to bulge slightly. They are available at the 2015 Convention Website, but are also reproduced for you here below, in as fancy and readable a format as I am able to manage. I apologise for the lack of an image on the front page, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put a picture of that awful statuette on my website.
|The Goblin Emperor
|City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books
|The Bone Clocks
Random House/Sceptre UK
|Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals
|My Real Children
Tor Books US/Corsair UK
|We Are All Completely Fine
|Where The Trains Turn
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Tor.com (19th Nov 2014)
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov./Dec. 2014
|The Mothers of Voorhisville
Tor.com (30th Apr 2014)
|Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)
Subterranean Press Magazine, Summer 2014
|The Devil in America
Kai Ashante Wilson
Tor.com (2nd April 2014)
|I Can See Right Through You
|Do You Like to Look at Monsters?
Fedogan & Bremer, chapbook attached to Ana Kai Tangata
Apex Magazine, January 2014
|Death’s Door Café
Shadows & Tall Trees 2014
|The Fisher Queen
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014
Ellen Datlow, ed.
George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds.
Bantam Books/Titan Books
|Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, eds.
|Shadows & Tall Trees 2014
|Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales
Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds.
|Mercy and Other Stories
|Gifts for the One Who Comes After
|They Do the Same Things Different There
|The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
|Death at the Blue Elephant
In addition to the work listed above, there is an Artist category, and special awards are voted on in the professional and non-professional fields. There is also a person selected to receive the lifetime recognition award.
I was a little dubious of Uprooted , in large part because several reviewers classified it as Young Adult, which is not my preferred genre, and I really wanted something I could enjoy selfishly while I was travelling.
I needn’t have worried. While there are overtones of the Young Adult style, there are clearly scenes and themes that stretch well beyond the borders of teenage fantasy.
Set in a world that is evidently based on Poland (our heroine is Agnieszka, the wizard wears a Zupan, the country is called Polnya), the main events occur in a set of villages and towns at the perimeter of a bewitched forest, and in the capital, where political intrigue gets in the way of any form of logical or coherent decision, as is so often the case in works of fantasy.
I enjoyed the writing style and I thought that the pace of the novel was close to perfect – I rarely had the urge to jump ahead a few pages, a problem that plagues me as soon as I feel a story is beginning to stall, nor did I have to stop and go back to figure out what was going on.
I understand, however, why some others thought this might be best categorized as a Young Adult novel, and this is driven largely by simplicity in characterisation and fairly linear storytelling. It all unwraps like an intricate work of origami, neatly leading to a culminating moment. The characters are nearly clustered at each end of a simple spectrum, either fooled into acting on behalf of the enemy, or unimpeachable in their dedication to the cause. This is neither good nor bad, and facilitates the flow of the story, but is a feature of young adult novels rather than more complicated, character driven stories that deal with moral ambiguity, true conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas where every answer is a wrong answer.
I enjoyed the read and powered through the book faster than I thought I would. While the ending is coherent and neat, I felt it was perhaps a little too much so, to the point of being a little trite, I can’t say more for fear of spoiling it, other than to say that I felt there was a lack of people among the survivors getting their comeuppance (or showing real remorse) for the abject stupidity and selfishness of their actions.
Magic is depicted as a talent-based career requiring study and mastery, rare but not so rare that it alienates its practitioners, and key to the survival of the realm. The culture is not very developed, but familiar, leaning of our pre-existing understanding of castles, courts and cities. The book doesn’t impose a radical re-imagining of the world upon the reader.
If you like the fantasy genre, this is a good example, with solid storytelling, an enjoyable story and a very likeable heroine that’s easy to relate to.