Quick Take: Reviewing January Reads

This month I tackled the epic fantasy work of China Mieville and I finally got to read a book by N.K. Jemisin that I’ve seen paraded around Twitter for months (rightfully so).

Here are my three reviews:

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

In a push back against traditional fantasy (think Tolkien and elves and dwarves), Mieville masterfully imposes a new world upon us. We follow the happenings of a number of characters through the foul metropolis that is New Crobuzon. Far from being engrossed in the tales of epic warriors or disenfranchised kings, we end up spending most of our time with a renegade scientist. While the story and characters were fascinating, a tale like this thrives, for me, on its depth. If you want to dive into a fantasy that constantly has you pausing to imagine this new creature or that new threat, this truly is the right book for you. There is a certain boundlessness at play here, and you should be fully ready to explore it over the course of a very long and almost merciless story line.

The Scar – China Mieville

Alright… this one quickly trumped Perdido Street Station for me. The writing and imagination are just as flourishing and expansive, but the setting was far more fascinating to me. Most of the book takes place in Armada, a floating city of pirate ships that have all been tied together and are constantly being pulled around the Swollen Ocean. If that’s not awesome enough, Mieville has the leaders of this city pushing some rather wild ideas about what kind of beasties they might summon up from the deep in order to do their bidding. It also features the Possible Sword, which might be my new favorite weapon in fantasy. Be prepared to step away in both awe and horror from the likes of Uther Doul.

So give it a chance even if it starts slow. The main narrator, Bellis Coldwine, takes a bit of warming up, but turns out to be such a steady narrative voice. She has that quiet steady way of an Eddard Stark, but without the trappings of honor. Her main goal is not to set an example, but to get home. Definitely one of my favorite stories this year.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

Talk about a book that absolutely stands up to the endless praise being thrown in its direction. We follow three story lines through the Stillness, a land so plagued by cataclysmic movement that it’s constantly experiencing the title’s warning: a fifth season. Similar to our “Year Without a Summer” in 1816, massive volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are causing massive disruptions in the weather patterns and general climate. The people living in the Stillness form their lives around the necessity of surviving an incoming Season, no matter when it happens or for how long it will last.

But the real star of the show is Jemisin’s system of magic. Roggas, or orogenes, have the ability to draw on, shape, and quell the powerful movements of the earth. Feared by most of the society, a hierarchical organization has formed that effectively enslaves these wielders of power. Not only is Jemisin’s system brilliant, but she highlights the depth of her world and her magic by giving us three vantage points by which we can view it.

Saying more would spoil things, but I will say that Jemisin’s framework in this novel was one of my recent favorites in a fantasy novel. I had the vaguest hint of what she might be doing early on, and was so pleased to see it unfold the way I guessed. Really excellent structural work from a clearly talented author.

And if you’re looking for a different style of voice in a fantasy work, Jemisin delivers there as well. Her writing in the Essun sections, in particular, are such a wonderful handling of second-person narration, which I’ve been taught so often not to use, that I found myself smiling at how thoroughly Jemisin squashes the idea that all the tools in the writers’ box are not there to be used and mastered. If it’s done well, it’s done well.

So… my highest recommendations here. If I had limited money and could just buy two of these books, I might leave out Perdido Street Station (which, though it is the first Bas Lag book, it is not sequentially necessary for understanding the Scar). The first book I’d grab from these would be The Fifth Season, as it simply gives us a new taste of fantasy that’s been needed for some time now. It’s also much shorter than both of Mieville’s works, so unless you’re dying for the endless assault of an epic fantasy, Jemisin’s your choice.

Cheers and happy reading!


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