What a sincerely excellent reading month, fam. August marks the third installment of my monthly reading recap series, and this month may be the best yet. I actually read fewer books this month than usual, but three of the four were over 400 pages and extremely complicated, so I’d say that’s a good reason! Three of the books on this list will make my Top 10 this year, and every single book was wildly thought-provoking, even the one I liked the least. Let’s begin!
I almost gave this a 10/10. I really did. The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award in 2016, and its two sequels also won the Hugo Award in 2017 and 2018, making Jemisin the first writer to win the Hugo Award three consecutive years in a row, and the first writer to win for all three books in a trilogy. Do I have your attention yet?! I have a feeling that this trilogy will be a lot like The Lord of The Rings (at least, the movies). By the time I get to the third book, it will be an easy 10/10 and overall one of the best series I have ever read. Bear with me below, as most sci-fi and fantasy books tend to take a little more “explaining” than other books do… (because most books are at least set on Earth in a clearly recognizable time period 😉).
The Fifth Season is the first book in a fantasy/science-fiction Trilogy called The Broken Earth that follows the lives of three women on a continent called “The Stillness.” It takes place on Earth, but we don’t have any idea in what time period, because the book measures time according to different events than our world does. In this world, a race of people called “orogenes” exist who can: “manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events” like earthquakes (definition taken from Jemisin’s glossary). These people are treated as less than human throughout The Stillness, despite the enormous natural power they wield. Orogenes are often killed in childhood once their orogeny is discovered, and those that are reported to the government instead are trained (and controlled) in an academy called the Fulcrum to learn how to use their power for the good of the continent.
The Fifth Season follows Essun: a mother in her 40s and an experienced "orogene" (basically, human with earth-moving capabilities) who is reeling from the murder of her three-year-old son at the hands of her own husband, who was unaware he had two powerful orogene children. After an unidentified orogene triggers the impending apocalypse, Essun spends most of the book traveling south trying to find her daughter, Nassun, who is missing. We also follow the absolutely riveting story of Syenite: a younger, more experienced orogene who is forced to breed with another orogene named Alabaster, who is one of the most powerful orogenes to ever come out of the Fulcrum. They travel to a coastal community on a routine assignment to clear its harbor of a blockage that is hurting the town’s economy, and shit really hits the fan when Syenite finds a mysterious object buried in the harbor and attempts to remove it. Finally, we are also introduced to Damaya: an orogene child who was given up by her parents and trained, immediately rising to the top of her class, though she has no friends and is targeted by other students for being so talented.
What can I even really say about The Fifth Season in a few short paragraphs?? This is one of the most complicated and detailed novels I have ever read, in the very best way. The world-building is absolutely stunning, though I read it at a snail’s pace to make sure I understood everything about the world Jemisin built to tell this story and its subsequent sequels. A majority of Jemisin’s main characters are Black, one is transgender, a few are not human, and all are so wonderfully developed that I wish more writers wrote with the level of detail and care that Jemisin does. The Fifth Season is a wildly adventurous fantasy novel that tackles important themes–like racism, most obviously–in a way I’ve simply never read before. I am completely in awe of Jemisin and will read literally anything she writes forever. All in all, if you can handle very intense world-building (i.e. not understanding what’s going on and having to read reeeeally slowly until you get the hang of it), I recommend this book even if you don’t typically go for fantasy or science fiction. Also, PLEASE watch and enjoy @blkemilydickinson’s video review of The Fifth Season–she is super funny and gives such a delightful overview of exactly why you should read The Fifth Season, all in under three minutes.
Because it’s the second book in a trilogy, there was always a risk of The Obelisk Gate being a “filler” book to bridge the first and third books in the series. However, I am ecstatic to report that The Obelisk Gate is somehow even better than The Fifth Season! I’m surprised I’m giving The Obelisk Gate a 10/10, but then again... I’m not. It’s certainly not a “standalone” book (i.e. you can’t read it without having read The Fifth Season first, and I honestly can’t tell you much about it because there would be spoilers everywhere), but it stands on its own as an absolutely fantastic novel, not just “the next book in a trilogy.” Without spoiling anything, in this book we learn: where Nassun is, who caused the apocalypse (and why), what the obelisks are for, and how the apocalypse might be averted. This series is just incredible, and I’m only taking a break before reading The Stone Sky to savor it just a little bit longer.
Like The Broken Earth trilogy, The Death of Vivek Oji is definitely going to make my top ten books of 2020. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, this short coming-of-age novel with a slight murder mystery twist is a book I want to shout from the rooftops. It’s getting some attention–it was on The New York Times bestseller list for a few weeks–but it’s since dropped off. Perhaps an unpopular opinion (sorry, Leslie), but this book is just so much better than The Vanishing Half (another novel that came out this summer, but received much more hype), I can’t even stand it. Where is Emezi’s seven-figure deal, HBO?!
Vivek Oji is the son of a Nigerian man and his Indian wife, growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s as the couple’s only child. He was born on the same day his grandmother died, and they share an unusual star-shaped scar on their feet. After a short (and troubled) young adulthood, Vivek's body shows up one day on his parents’ doorstep, presumably having been murdered, on the day the village market burned down. Vivek wasn’t like “ordinary” boys, that much is clear to anyone who knew him well. He grew up questioning his gender identity and suffered from random, uncontrollable episodes of fugue. As an adult, Vivek finally knew who he really was, and had a close group of friends who truly knew and loved him. What happened to Vivek? How did he die, and what was his life like while he was alive?
The majority of the book isn’t about how Vivek died–it’s about how he lived and the search for his “true” self. There is definitely a murder-mystery aspect of the book closer to the end, which I found absolutely riveting. I tore through the last 20 pages with tears streaming down my face, choking back sobs. Partly because it’s finally revealed how he died (CRUSHING), but mostly because the end is the emotional culmination of how difficult, yet also joyous, Vivek’s life was. His mother’s reaction to finding out Vivek’s secret is one of the most emotional parts of the book, but I can’t tell you anything more because I don’t want to spoil it! In summary, this book is about a young adult’s experience with being transgender (or simply not conforming to the traditional gender identities of male and female) written by a non-binary author from Nigeria with some serious talent–The Death of Vivek Oji is only their second book for adults, and third overall. BRB while I go buy their debut novel, Freshwater: an autobiographical story that is currently in development as a TV series with FX.
I have many thoughts about this book, so buckle up y’all! First off, let me say that I have been ridiculously excited for this book’s release after reading Boyne’s 2017 masterpiece, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, earlier this year (an all-time favorite of Leslie's too!). I requested a copy from the publisher, and was over the moon when they actually sent it to me both in digital and hardcover. I tore into it without reading anything about it, since Boyne has basically become a must-read author for me. But now that I’ve read his most recent work, I’m frankly a little unsure how to feel, and I’d like to unpack all of my thoughts here.
A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom is an epic work of historical fiction that spans over two thousand years of time and visits countries all over the world. Each chapter is about ten pages long, and we are guided through both time and space by our unnamed narrator as he tells us his story. Our narrator is a creative, sensitive boy who grows up with a harsh and sometimes violent father who is constantly disappointed in him for not being more “masculine,” instead choosing more creative pursuits like drawing, making clothing, or crafting sculptures. While he is an excellent craftsman as an adult (in a series of different professions which change from chapter to chapter), he is a flawed person with blood on his hands, consumed by a quest for vengeance in the latter half of the novel. Here’s where it gets confusing: This novel plays out over 2,000+ years of time, in 50 different countries. In every ten-page chapter, the narrator and his family (father M, mother F, brother J, sister A, and cousin H, among others) stay the same generally in personality, but their names and professions change along with the setting and time period. The book begins in Palestine in A.D. 1 with the narrator’s father slaughtering dozens of baby boys who might be Jesus Christ, and ends in the United States of America in 2016 on the eve of the presidential election. Are you still with me?
I’ll admit, this book took me about 100 pages to really get into. Having each chapter essentially start over except for the overarching “through lines” was hard to get used to. I have a rule where I try my absolute best to make it to 50 percent before deciding I’m not going to finish a book, and I’m glad I powered through because once I got the hang of the format, I was sucked in. This is certainly one of the more ambitious and creative books I’ve ever read. In terms of style, I’d say Boyne pulls it off (it would take an excellent writer to make this format work, and Boyne certainly is one). Where I’m unsure if this book succeeds, though, is in its overall mission. What was Boyne trying to say with this book? I’m not sure if I like the answer.
If you’re still reading and want to go even further down this rabbit hole with me, read this review from The Guardian, which helped me understand what this book is really about. The article’s author states: “It scarcely needs to be said that this book is intended as a gung-ho rebuttal of the notion that writers should stay in their lane and stick to fictional worlds that are appropriate to their identity.” And there it is. The source of my unease, and the reason I wanted to really unpack this book here. I’ve thought a lot about this particular topic this year with the release of the super-popular American Dirt, which I haven’t read. Should white fiction writers “stay in their lane” and avoid stepping into the identities of people from marginalized communities in their work? Is it appropriate for a white author to write a work of fiction from the perspective of a marginalized person (or group of people) with whom they cannot possibly relate to? Where is the line and how do we know if a white author (such as Boyne) has crossed it?
Throughout most of the book, I thought A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom was a well-researched, beautiful story about how so many human emotions and experiences are universal across space and even time. Boyne even says as much about halfway through the book:
“A man who lost his beloved wife a thousand years ago suffered the same grief I felt when I lost mine, no more and no less. A woman who discovers her child is being mistreated a thousand years hence will experience the same levels of murderous fury that you feel today. Love does not change, anger never varies. Hope, desperation, fear, longing, desire, lust, anxiety, confusion and joy; you and I endure these emotions just as men and women always have or ever will.”
I see the point he’s trying to make. We’re all human, and I can imagine your experiences because we all experience the human condition in the same way. But if I’ve learned anything recently from the Black Lives Matter movement, that’s not exactly true, is it? Is this book the literary equivalent of saying “but I don’t see color”? My alarm bells started ringing at this point in the book, and they only got louder about 50 pages from the end with this exchange between the narrator and a book publisher in 1830s Scotland:
“Your central character is a musician, isn’t that right?”
“Aye. A fiddle player.”
“And you don’t play the fiddle?”
He scratched his chin and considered this.
“Is that a problem?” I asked. “Would it be better if I did?”
“A little,” he replied. “There have been some people of late writing letters to the literary pages complaining of authors who do not share the same experiences with their characters.”
I considered this. “If they did,” I said, “would that not be an autobiography?”
“It would, yes, and their argument is entirely fallacious, of course. But it’s gaining some ground. A lady novelist has been brought up on charges for employing a male narrator for her latest book. The shops have refused to stock it, such is the uproar.”
“But she has met men, I would assume,” I replied. “She knows what a man is?”
“So she’s using her imagination, you might say, to create his voice?”
I laughed and shook my head. “Well, take her out and stone her in the streets,” I said. “The woman must be insane!”
I see you, John Boyne. This sounds exactly like what a privileged white man might say in response to criticism, does it not? The book finishes shortly after with an aggravating section–the final chapter before the epilogue–that helped solidify my thoughts, heading to the United States during the Trump vs. Clinton election. Boyne, who is Irish, makes an absolute joke out of Americans. His family has morphed into a group of obnoxious Trump supporters, who lounge around on the couch stuffing Doritos in their mouths wearing “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia. Is this a good representation of the United States during this time period? Does it represent me, personally? (Picture me on November 8th, 2016, crying in my apartment alone and texting my parents: “Maybe you should turn on the TV and look at what you’ve done.”) This chapter read as a caricature of the U.S. in this particular time period (which of course does have truth to it–I won’t deny that it doesn’t). But 100 years from now, is this depiction what I want to represent the American people in 2016? No. Should Boyne, who is not American, generalize like this and “speak for us” in this way about what it was like in 2016 in the U.S.? “His” character, the narrator, of course is the only Democrat present and thinks his entire family is crazy–I can relate. But I think this chapter was unfair, lacks representation (it’s pretty clear that his family members in this final chapter are all white), and I don’t like his depiction of what Boyne clearly sees as “most” Americans (“most” also being everyone in the chapter except the narrator / Boyne himself). I understand that Trump supporters are not a marginalized group, obviously. But if Boyne portrays the United States in 2016 this way—is every other chapter in this book a caricature (or just seriously lacking representation) too?
I’m dissatisfied with this novel, and disappointed in what I think it’s meant to stand for. Like The Guardian writer said, it suffers from such a simplistic view of history and the problems of representation. Boyne is making a lot of assumptions about how certain things are viewed across different cultures and time periods that may or may not be true. Something as “universal” as vengeance, sure, maybe I buy it. But I am suspect of his narrator’s oft-repeated, highly creative nature, which is both revered and sought after (by very rich people and women, mostly) and also extremely frowned-upon (by men, mostly his father). This sounds like something rather personal, instead of universal, and I’d love to know more about Boyne’s relationship with his father. I feel that perhaps Boyne is projecting his own pain and frustration over two thousand years and across the entire world. My guess is that he’s assigning his own father’s expression of disappointment that he was a sensitive, creative boy to nearly all fathers in other cultures basically since the birth of Jesus. And is that fair? I don’t think it is.
All in all, I did give this novel a 6/10 because I think Boyne is a strong and ambitious writer. I did enjoy reading this book, and found myself deeply engrossed in many parts of it. But I also agree so much with the writer from The Guardian, Marcel Theroux, that I’ll quote him again here:
“I’m deeply sympathetic to the argument that novelists should roam freely around human experience. I think it’s important to stick up for the principle of fiction which says that through an imaginative effort you can discover and convey a sense of what it’s like to be another person. But Boyne’s take on this feels lazier, narrower, and harder to defend: I don’t need to imagine your life, the book seems to say, you’re just like me.”
So let's talk about it–where do you stand? Leave a comment below!