Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
An incredible, effortlessly original fantasy novel, well-deserving of its Hugo Award. This is the second book of the author’s that I’ve read – The Killing Moon was the first – and again, I was struck by how fresh Jemisin’s work feels. She doesn’t waste time rehashing the tired old fantasy tropes that we see over and over again. She also has absolutely no fucks to give, and it comes through in her work that has so many highly relevant messages to the world we live in today.
Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Them them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.
First, let’s talk world building. It pairs astronomy with sentient rock people, as the author herself notes in the acknowledgements, which is such a fabulous, intriguing notion. Basically, there are a small group of people born who are able to control the earth’s geological forces, causing or dispelling earthquakes and other seismic activity. Rest of the world is terrified of these people, and the sentient rock people (its a catchy term, okay) are heavily discriminated against. And that’s all you really need to know going in.
There are so many intricacies and subplots going on in the background – you simply have to trust the author to reveal the information to you as relevant. Indeed, you’re thrown into the deep end when the book begins, with three different perspectives of three women in very different situations. But you’re able to piece things together without being spoonfed by the author. She makes you work for it, which is so much more satisfying.
“I didn’t know.” She slurs the words around the back of her hand. The words don’t make sense but she feels compelled to say them. “I didn’t.”
“You think that matters?” It’s almost cruel, the emotionlessness of his voice and face.
The characters are … interesting. There’s no other way to put it. They are substantial, but the author has perfected showing, not telling, so there’s much we have to infer from their actions and words. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the diversity of characters. Female perspectives dominate, and they are kickass, intelligent, self-sufficient women. Almost everybody in this novel is of some shade of brown. Sexualities are fluid. Trans people exist without fanfare or furore. There are complicated relationships and not-relationships, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.
The moments of humour are few and far between, considering the subject matter of the book, but this makes them all the more valuable. The following exchange in particular had me cackling out loud:
“Don’t follow me.”
“Wasn’t planning to.”
“I mean it… You don’t know what I’m going back to. I could live in a walled compound with fifty other rusters just like me. We might have tooth-files and a ‘juicy stupid people’ recipe book.”
You get the impression that you are just skimming the surface of what is a deeply intricate, deeply layered universe. Kudos to the author, and highly recommended.