Stone stories: N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

gorgeous colours and intricate work
gorgeous colours and intricate work

When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.

In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.

In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.

Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.

The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.

Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.

N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99

London calling: Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels

griffin 1I feel I’ve come rather late to the fair with Kate Griffin’s sorcerers-in-London series, since the first one came out in 2009. I was looking stupidly at A Madness of Angels in a bookshop last autumn, wondering why it wasn’t ringing bells – surely I’d read all the magical-London novels in print? – and was urged by the bookseller to read it because it was brilliant. Well, it took me a long time to read it since the prose is dense, the concepts are devious and the plot twists are many. There was a LOT of doubling back to reread and recalibrate.

The plot, briefly, is that Matthew Swift wakes up in a new body in his old bedroom, very troubled as well as bruised and starving, because he’s pretty sure that he used to be dead. His room has a new tenant, who seems horrified to see him when he staggers past her dinner party out of the door in someone else’s clothes, but then he has to concentrate, because a horrific magical creature is loping after him through London’s suburban streets and back alleys. Then his magic comes back, he remembers all that he is, and can do, and his power simply blossoms from his fingertips. He is a sorcerer, not a magician, warlock or a wizard, and there is a difference. Wizards do book-learning, warlocks are street conjurors, whereas sorcerers are instinctive, creating magic and spells from anything to hand, and this, I suggest, is where the USP brilliance of Kate Griffin’s series lies. Matthew’s quest – because there always is a quest, isn’t there? – is to survive, find out who else is in his brain, and work out who brought him back from the dead, and for what purpose. There is a horrific magical gang war festering in London, and Matthew is very close indeed to the person fomenting it. By focusing on the desperation of chances taken and emergency magic created in a frantic rush, the momentum of the plot keeps up well, despite it being over 400 pages long.

griffin 2How is this novel different from the others in its genre? It’s not as terrifying as China Miéville’s Kraken, though it is definitely dark, and there is much blood. Its hidden-in-plain-sight alternative London settings borrow from Harry Potter, but in a grown-up way, and are set above ground, rather than following Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere’s belowgroundness. It shares London street knowledge and secret tribes with Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and has the attitude but not the jokes of Good Omens. I think what I like best about A Madness of Angels is its expansiveness. London has been a magical literary location in adult fiction at least since Stella Benson’s Living Alone during the First World War, as well as attracting too many triffids and zombies. Sometimes I wonder just how many alternative magical existences Zone One and the 38 bus route can accommodate. Instead of doing clever things with Tube names, Griffin focuses on particular buildings and structures, some of which are very familiar to even the most casual part-time Londoner. This also helps us wade through the story.

The length is the only problem with this first novel, I think. My other half gave up in despair because he couldn’t hack through the undergrowth of text. I read faster so I stayed with it, but it was a struggle until about a third of the way through, and the plot bit hard on my imagination. Griffin’s prose is wordy and repetitive, making the novel much longer than it needs to be, but it is a slow-moving beast taking its time, getting to the end in a satisfying, unsentimental crunch. It’s also oddly androcentric. There are women characters, obviously, since this author is a modern young person, but the story is told and driven by men. I’m in two minds about buying books two, three and four. If I had another long flight ahead of me, I would invest the time to read them properly.

griffin 3The really remarkable thing about Kate Griffin is not that she published four novels in four years, but also publishes prolifically as Claire North, and as Catherine Webb (her real name), and has a day job in the theatre. That’s what I call a Dickensian amount of polymathery. No wonder writing about London suits her so well.

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels (Orbit, 2009). I’ve not read (yet) the others in the Matthew Swift series, but you might want to know they exist: The Midnight Mayor (2010), The Neon Court (2011), The Minority Council (2012).  

Framework, unfinished: Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown

Crown 1You know that feeling of ‘damn, she got there before me’? That’s what I felt, listening to Helen Lewis on the New Statesman podcast talking about the last Terry Pratchett novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. At every point she made, I nodded, and chopped the celery a little more crossly while admiring, of course, her perspicacity in sharing my views. However, she didn’t put a lot of our points in her review in the print edition, so I feel I can have my say too.

I’ve blogged before about Terry Pratchett’s fiction: on Magrat here, as a podcast on The Truth here, as a beginner’s guide reading list here, and on Raising Steam here. Of his last novels, I hooted in delirium at Unseen Academicals, I was blown away by I Shall Wear Midnight, I really liked Snuff, I thought Dodger was a bit glib. I bought The Shepherd’s Crown in hardback (I very rarely do that), a week after it came out, and blinked at the price. HOW much? Blame the exchange rate, but €33 for a novel that isn’t even finished yet (as it says in the Afterword), is a rip-off. Yes, it’s Terry Pratchett, and yes it’s his last novel. It’s got to be bought. It’s also a great deal better (more satisfying, better written, more clearly worked out, a more impressive work of literary imagination) than Raising Steam, but still. HOW much? Obviously I have no idea of the price of hardbacks these days.

The Shepherd’s Crown is the fifth in the Tiffany Aching novels, and I don’t know what number in the loose sequence of Discworld novels where Pratchett tells us about the witches. Discworld’s witches are the midwives, health visitors, social workers, community police, and accident & emergency services. They have common sense and practical magic, are readers of people and keepers of the village memory. They do spells when needed, they understand the land and the land understands them. They have more power than wizards do, I expect, but they’re too busy seeing to their steadings (or parishes) to mess around with showmanship and foolishness (for that is what wizards do).

crown 2At the beginning of The Shepherd’s Crown, Tiffany Aching, barely in her twenties, has been a witch for nearly half her life and is delivering the babies of women twice her age without a qualm. She has a boyfriend, sort of, but he’s a surgeon in the big city, and their jobs are too important to put down for an hour, let alone a weekend off. So she lives with her loving, supportive family who feed her and make sure her clothes are clean when they can get her to have a night’s sleep. Tiffany isn’t quite happy with the way certain things are going in her steading, but she’s too busy keeping it all together to sit down and think this worry through.

Then Granny Weatherwax, the most experienced and powerful and inscrutable witch on Discworld dies, as Helen Lewis says, in the most natural way possible. She has a premonition, cleans the house, makes her coffin, tells the plants and bees what’s happening, cleans the house again, amends her notice of ‘I aten’t dead’ that she habitually places on her chest when she lies down to do a night’s flying by borrowing an owl’s body, to ‘I is probably dead’. There’s also a note for her oldest friend, Nanny Ogg, telling her that Tiffany gets the cottage. So Tiffany, when all the other witches have accepted that she, already known as the most powerful witch after Granny Weatherwax, gets to inherit the cottage, has not one but two steadings to be overworked in. And in amongst all this, the fairies have decided to come back and take over the Discworld. Fairies are not sweet and decorative and tiny. They are evil, malicious and cruel, and now Tiffany has to work out how to stop them without Granny Weatherwax at her back.

a perfect portrait of the witches of Discworld, by I don't know who, from the Hypable site so it's probably not fan art but from the Pratchett empire.
a perfect portrait of the witches of Discworld, by I don’t know whom, from the Hypable site so it’s probably not fan art but from the Pratchett empire.

That is the best part of the novel, because it’s the part that has been most worked out. It reads as vintage Pratchett, perhaps with a little bit here and there that could have been thickened up a little, but it’s definitely nearly final draft stage. The rest of The Shepherd’s Crown is largely the framework that Pratchett was writing towards. Two or three important new characters arrive and are barely explained, or woven properly into the Discworld’s back story. They’re good, and innovative. A fairy queen considers reforming by learning how humans think and feel: this is excellent, with room for a vicious satirical sideswipe. Geoffrey, third and unregarded son of Lord Swivel, is the first peaceweaver Discworld has seen. We need to know so much more about this idea, his role, what he thinks about, but his sketched-in beatific outline wanders through the story to the end with barely an insight or a nudge towards fleshing him out.

We have return visits from old characters, who behave better than expected (Mrs Earwig) or as bland as we’ve ever seen them (Queen Magrat). You the cat is clearly a character with a lot more to do that never got written, as is Maggie the teenage kelda who gets to fight in the battle, a thing no girl Feegle has done in generations. All these great ideas, half-told, gone for good. The Shepherd’s Crown itself, a fossilised sea-urchin, is the secret weapon that barely gets detonated before everything is over. Why? What happened? Tell us properly. I feel like a schoolchild at the library looking at the shut door when the storyteller has gone home.

Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown (2015), ISBN 9 780857 534811, €33!!!!!!, or £20 in the UK.

You can get hold of that New Statesman podcast through this link; scroll down to the bottom of the page to click on the link for NS #113.




Tell Me What You Read: Wendy Bryant

In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

This week, Wendy Bryant, senior lecturer in occupational therapy at the University of Essex, artist and dog-walker

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

I read James Joyce at school: I found the symbolism helpful later in the literal world of occupational therapy, especially the notion of an epiphany. Rebecca West: I worked through them all when I was a student and newly married and newly qualified, feeling a bit homesick living in Coventry and struck by the Judge and the evocative Thames estuary landscapes. In my first job, dealing with the grim realities of dementia and stroke rehabilitation and amputations etc, it was good to escape to her world where things were never quite what they seemed. Later when I was doing a PhD in my 40s, Clare Allen wrote Poppy Shakespeare, and that confirmed and challenged my research and made me review much of my career working in mental health.

HobanI’ve read pretty much everything Russell Hoban wrote, starting with The Turtle Diary as a teenager, Riddley Walker etc, right through to his last novels a few years ago. I particularly love Kleinzeit and have used it a lot in teaching to expose the imaginative possibilities of the illness experience and how health professionals do or don’t engage with that.

Will Self is in a similar vein, with the brutal realities of Liver and Dr Mukti. Most recently Umbrella brought my experiences of working in asylums vividly alive, it was like we had been in the same corridors. His novels help me digest the difficult memories.

Terry Pratchett: Granny Weatherwax is my role model, I love the concept of first, second and third thoughts and use that idea a lot when I’m struggling with something. I adore the Unseen University and the academics, use as a reference point in my academic life. I use his books as a treat for when I am taking a break as they’re so absorbing and easy to read. DEATH has been a great comfort to me.

China Mieville: I’ve read The City and The City, and Perdido St Station very recently. I am particularly fascinated by utopias and dystopias and found the idea of whole cities only existing if you knew how to look a particularly useful idea for moving on from the limitations of a utopia. That probably doesn’t make sense, sorry. I do love a good complicated adventure, again to escape the demands of my life.

PullmanPhilip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series: so many rich ideas – cutting windows into other worlds, the horror of institutional cruelty and barbaric science, the occupational focus of the utopia at the end, with its environmental themes. These things resonate with my own research and practice focus. I have read those books several times but never found a satisfying audio version. Unlike Stephen Fry reading J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which supported me through many journeys, to and from work and elsewhere, with useful and easy insights into teaching and learning!

CheekIf you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

I wish Mavis Cheek would write more books: I used enjoy her writing. Fay Weldon is funny but a bit brittle. My real comfort reading is J K Rowling or Terry Pratchett. But, bizarrely, if I know I’ve got some quality reading time ahead (holidays etc) I’ll read non-fiction.

What reading do you choose for a long journey?

Depends how I’m travelling. For the train, a Terry Pratchett or nonfiction. I loved a book about bees which a friend lent me. For the plane, an easy read that I can pick up and put down. For the car, an audiobook. David Mitchell is fantastic for audiobooks: Number9dream and The Bone Clocks were awesome. Something just demanding enough to keep track of. Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro was an extraordinary experience: I was so embarrassed when I realised I had my car window down at the traffic lights for a particularly lewd bit.

TheRoadCormac McCarthy’s The Road: so bitterly awful that when I got home I carried on listening, tears streaming down my cheeks.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

I tend not to read if I’m bored. Don’t really get bored to be honest. If I’m bored with what I’m reading (I know, different question) then I either just abandon it, or read gardening magazines, Private Eye, the Guardian. When I was younger I suppose I must have read books when I was bored.

What was your last huge reading disappointment?

I think it was a book called Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. It should have been so good. It really should have. But I realised I wasn’t interested and didn’t care about domestic life with children. Ten years ago I would have loved it, but not now. Like the shopaholic books and Bridget Jones, I’m past all that. I haven’t found much about middle aged women with complicated lives.

coastAnd finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

This Luminous Coast, a book about the Essex coastline by Jules Pretty. I first spotted it in 2012, and a few weeks later bought it out of curiosity. I didn’t read it of course, because I didn’t have time, first because of a series of funerals and then my mother was ill. Then the job at the University of Essex came up. Within a few months I was looking for a reading escape while temporarily living back with my parents. The book was wonderful: it felt as if I was exploring every step along the coast. A curiously familiar journey not just because I grew up in Essex but also because I found myself disagreeing with the author at times, and laughing along at others, just like I was doing with my parents. The best surprise of all came after I’d finished the book: my mother read it and before I knew it my dad had read it too. I’ve never known that to happen before!

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: Martin Fowler, software developer, incessant traveller and author

Reading Terry Pratchett: a beginner’s guide

pratchett_2233925bA short list of suggestions for how to start reading Terry Pratchett’s novels, because the list is now closed.

Guards, Guards, for the perfect, all-in-one introduction to Discworld’s major city, to its plethora of characters and races, and to the immortal Vimes.

Monstrous Regiment, for searing satire on feminism, war-mongering and class.

I Shall Wear Midnight, for its bitter rage against leaving life’s essential messy parts to someone else,  preferably someone underpaid and ignored.

Lords and Ladies, in which witches stop being funny and start saving the world, because those fairies are EVIL.

Unseen Academicals, for the perfect joy of football and the irrational hatred of minorities.

I posted reviews of Raising Steam, and a round-up of Magrat’s appearances, on Vulpes Libris in the past few years.

Please take it as read that all his novels are uncontrollably funny, and wear their raging anger at the imbecility of humans lightly.