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Widdershins by Oliver Onions

Penguin, 1939, 244 p.

Widdershins cover

This is a book of eight short stories – well, one is a novella – first published in 1911, by Yorkshireman Onions. He wrote well, each of the stories holds the attention and his characterization is good. All have at least a hint of the strange or unnatural. They stand up even a century after writing.

In the combined ghost and horror story The Beckoning Fair One a writer takes a flat in an otherwise empty house and finds he can no longer continue the novel he has been working on, nor the enthusiasm for much else. I was reminded a bit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Phantas is the story of the captain of a becalmed – and sinking – galleon out of the port of Rye, who dreams of a means of propulsion which would enable ships to avoid such a predicament. Out of the mists looms a grey, steam-driven modern destroyer.
Rooum is one of those unlettered men who has a natural flair for competency in his trade. He questions our unnamed narrator about molecules and osmosis as he feels he is occasionally subject to a kind of interpersonal merging.
The register in which Benlian is told is a familiar one to readers of Fantasy or Science Fiction, a realist depiction of a weird phenomenon. Benlian is a sculptor whose essence is increasingly opaque to photography, a man passing away, into his sculpture. The possibility that the narrator is mad rather spoils things though.
In Io a young woman who is convalescing tries to remember the dreams she had during her illness so as to enter their reality.
The Accident occurs when a man about to meet an old adversary in an attempt at reconciliation has a vision of how the encounter will – must – turn out.
The Cigarette Case is one of those shaggy dog stories of the “as told me by a friend” variety.
In Hic Jacet a successful author of detective fiction – a thinly veiled model, this – is asked to write the “Life” of an artist friend (who did not compromise his integrity for commercial success) and finds the gods of writing are against the project.

Pedant’s corner:- accidently (accidentally,) a missing end quotation mark. “But an effort of will he put them aside” (either ‘By an effort of will’, or, ‘But by an effort of will.’) “I seemed so natural” (context also supports ‘It seemed so natural.’) “whiskys and soda” (whiskies; but at least we weren’t subjected to ‘whisky and sodas’.) “ A group of scene-shifters were” (a group was,) plaintains (plantains,) pigmy (I prefer pygmy,) “penumbia of shadow” (penumbra,) “I confess that the position had effect of the thing startled me for a moment” (I can’t parse this phrase at all,) “his position involved a premium on which the rich amateur, he merely replied…” (seems to be missing a word after “amateur”, besogne (besoin,) “the abiquitous presence” (ubiquitous, I suspect.)

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

Harvill Secker, 2018, 309 p, plus iv p Glossary of Chapter Titles and i p Bibliography.

 The Gloaming cover

Set on an unnamed Scottish island, The Gloaming is an extended riff on the selkie legend, with additional elements of the fantastic. Mainly concerned with the lives of Islay, Mara and Barra, the three children of an ex-boxer, Peter, and a former ballerina, Signe, incomers to the island who live in a large house – complete with shark jaw for a doorway – which they intend to convert slowly from dilapidation to a hotel, it also explores familial resentments and duties. Barring the first’s, its chapter titles contain one word – ballet terms for those about Signe, boxing ones for Peter, and Scots for the children. While in some cases these are apposite, in others the connection between the title and the chapter’s content seems more than a little forced, if it exists at all.

When inhabitants of the island are about to die they start to slow down. This is an indication they will turn to stone, a fantastical conceit of Logan’s whereby the bodies end up on a hill as statues, a process usually attended by the island’s inhabitants as a ceremonial act but sometimes undertaken alone. This whimsy is not really explored fully as the hub around which the story revolves is Mara, who suffers a facial disfigurement the night she tries (and fails) to rescue Barra from drowning. In later life she forms an attachment to Pearl, a later incomer to the island, whose house lies within a hill and who at first can be read as the embodiment of the selkie legend. On their first meeting Pearl tells Mara she is a mermaid, by which she means she performs as one in an aquatic travelling show. Their later sojourn away from the island as a double act (selkies always leave) is a brief interlude only though. The pull of family is too strong.

Logan does pull off some tricks with apparent narrative viewpoint but her asides on readerly expectation of a story’s destination prefigure too strongly her intentions.

The Gloaming is fine as far as it goes, certainly better, more cohesive, than the author’s previous novel The Gracekeepers.

Pedant’s corner:- “When he arrived he wouldn’t fail to miss her” (context demands, “he wouldn’t fail to see her”,) “the sort that comes in packs of four at discount shops and only shattered if you threw them hard on a tiled floor” (and only shatter if you throw them.) “Didn’t that use to be…” (used to be,) “‘whatever I have to do make her see’” (to do to make her see.) In the Glossary; besom is defined as “a broom, a woman of loose morals and a cheeky child.” (A broom, definitely but I’ve not heard it used in the context of a woman of loose morals, only of one cheeky or nosy) drouthy is given as thirsty for strong drink (it just means thirsty, not necessarily for strong drink,) mauchit (spelled this way the “ch” would be pronounced as in loch; it isn’t. The online dictionary of Scots language has mockit – one instance of maukit – though I have seen mocket.)

Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018

TTA Press

Interzone 275 cover

Steven J Dines’s Editorial describes the unlikely role of father figure which fiction took in his young life. Andy Hedgecoock takes over Jonathan McCalmont’s Future Interrupted column and hopes to continue his search for SF “that is of value and worthy of our time”. In Time Piecesa Nina Allan looks at the abiding relevance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In Book Zone Maureen Kincaid Speller found herself disappointed and frustrated by Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, Duncan Lunan reviews two anthologies edited by Mike Ashley Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures and Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet welcoming some of the choices made and questioning others and laterb looks very favourably on Sisyphean by Dempow Torishima, Duncan Lawiec says he won’t persevere with any sequels to Tristan Palmgren’s Quietus, Ian Hunter findsd The Oddling Prince by Nancy Springer hindered by its first person narrative, Andy Hedgecock warmly welcomes Ursula Le Guin’s collection of non-fiction Dreams Must Explain Themselves, Stephen Theaker laments the enduring topicality of Middle-Eastern woes in his look at The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Elaine Gallagher praises Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming while I myself find Chris Barnham’s Fifty-One diverting and Andrew Crumey’s The Great Chain of Unbeing totally accomplished. Finally Ian Sales says the stories in the Australian Sean McMullen’s collection Dreams of the Technarion do what SF ought to as it contains a wide range of ideas thoroughly worked out.

In the fiction, Erika L Satifka’s The Fate of the World Reduced to a Ten-Second Pissing Contest is set in a bar which has been abducted into a gap in reality – contents, patrons and all – by aliens with a taste for alcohol.
In Looking for Landau1 by Steven J Dines a man wanders the earth in search of Landau, who introduces people to the gateway to the next world.
The Mark2 by Abi Hynes can be read as a comment on how women are perceived in some quarters as not quite being human. A member of a seemingly uniform far future community (where reproduction has been a technological process now failing) flees up a mountain to escape the consequences of deformity. It soon becomes apparent she has given birth and the bundle she is carrying with her is the child.
The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct3 by Malcolm Devlin is a quasi-philosophical piece centred round a man who dies at the same time in every separate reality (though in different ways depending on each.)
The Christ Loop4 by Leo Vladimirsky is narrated by a Jesus who undergoes every kind of execution possible, and is debriefed after each one in order to discern which will finally be enough to satisfy God.
It is a bit odd that these last two stories both feature the multiple deaths of their main character.

Pedant’s corner:- adescendent (descendant.) bOne Day in the Life of Ian Denisovitch (Ian?) Star Trek – Next Generation (Star Trek – The Next Generation) cIain M Banks’ (Iain M Banks’s,) populus (populace.) d“will not except him as a son” (accept.) 1stood (standing,) focussed (focused.) “A pair of women’s panties sit on the crumpled roof” (a pair sits.) 2“They lay Uncle down” (laid.) 3Iron Bridge (Ironbridge,) “the manner of Prentis O’Rourke’s deaths were documented” (the manners …. were documented,) Mechano (Meccano,) busses (buses.) 4Written in USian, “if they just left all the other me” (all the other me’s,) a question mark at the end of a statement.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Penguin, 1995, 91 p.

The Yellow Wallpaper cover

This is a small collection containing five of Gilman’s short stories, published as part of Penguin’s 60s Classics series. All could be considered to some degree feminist tales even if the term was not in widespread use at the time they were written. Three have some supernatural/speculative bent.
The Yellow Wallpaper is Gilman’s famous tale of a woman in her sick bed haunted by the yellow wallpaper of her bedroom room in the house her physician husband has rented for three months. Possibly being gaslighted (gaslit?) by her husband and his assurances that she needs to rest and take medicine to become well again, over the weeks she comes to see strange patterns in the wallpaper and an old woman behind its bars, as if imprisoned. The shift in the last two pages is impressive.
In When I Was a Witch a woman ventures onto a New York roof on a sultry night and is mewed at by a scalded black cat, witnesses a horse being mistreated and wishes for all the inflictors of such iniquities to feel the pain themselves and all ill-used cats and dogs to be relieved of their pain. Her wishes come true.
Turned is the old tale of a young innocent servant girl taken advantage of by the man of the house, here transmogrified by the response of his wife to the situation.
In Making a Change a new mother driven to distraction by sleeplessness and her mother-in-law’s criticisms attempts suicide. Her mother-in-law saves her and plans the change of the title.
The most overtly feminist story, If I Were a Man, embodies the wish of its title as Mollie comes to inhabit the consciousness of her husband – enhancing both her realisations and his.

Pedant’s corner:- would go down cellar (down to the cellar.) “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seem to lurk” (seems,) “used to make my fairly frantic” (used to make me.) “The sobbed bitterly” (contexts demands, “She sobbed,” ) “the pangs of bitter jealously” (jealousy,) “joked his wife” (to his wife,)

Shoreline of Infinity 4: Summer 2016

The New Curiosity Shop

Shoreline of Infinity 4 cover

In this issue there are interviewsa with Ken Macleod and Tricia Sullivan by Gary Dalkinb. Duncan Lunan reviews Ken Macleod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence mainly by way of discussing other works; Iain Maloney mystifyingly likes Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and praises publisher Unsung Signals for taking a punt on Dan Grace’s long short (or short long) piece of fiction, Winter, not to mention the work itself. Elsa Bouetc likes Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Benjamin Thomasd eulogises Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky despite its tendency towards info-dumping, Ian Huntere is less generous to Ian Boffard’s Tracer. Ruth EJ Booth’s first column discusses the effect of winning a first award on a writer. Russell Jones’s introductionf to Multiverse (the poetry section) manages to tell us what the poems are about before we read them.
As to the fiction:-
Well Enough Alone1 by Holly Schofield depicts the cognitive decline of an elderly woman. Keen to get rid of her electronic minder by damaging it, she persuades the repair technician to download its programming into her smartcane while awaiting a replacement. The smartcane has programming of its own.
In Senseless2 by Gary Gibson a future National Unity totalitarian government perverts a medical breakthrough by using a device to remove senses from the prisoners it detains. A blind inmate who has developed compensation mechanisms and concocted an escape plan is suspicious of a new cellmate.
Andrew J Wilson’s The Stilt-Men of the Lunar Swamps3 is a typically exuberant piece of Wilsoniana, a Vernian/Wellsian pastiche in which our intrepid adventurers travel into a cavern in the Moon to meet the titular stilt-men and their even more alien controllers. There’s also a character named MacGuffin.
Model Organisms4 by Caroline Grebell relates the last yearnings of a dying life-form.
In Note to Self5 by Michael Stroh a wannabe Science Fiction writer busily piling up the rejection slips receives a package in the post: his first novel, sent to him by his future self.
Robert Neilson’s From the Closet is the somewhat predictable story of a man who tailors himself – literally – to the profile required by his internet dating partner.
The G4.A of geefourdotalpha6 by Clive Tern is a fighting robot which achieves consciousness when brought down in its final battle, surviving hundreds of years before being unearthed by a human anxious to preserve her hunting grounds.
Beachcomber by Mark Toner is a continuation of the graphic/comic strip series introduced in Shoreline of Infinity 3. This episode manages to combine 1950s UFOlogy with the Broons!
Gay Hunter by James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) is an extract from that author’s novel of the same title, the latest to be considered under Monica Burns’s7 SF Caledonia umbrella.

Pedant’s corner:- aIn the introduction “Ken Macleod and Tricia Sullivan have both have contributed” (remove a “have”.) b“as an writer of the left” (a writer,) “advances are being made bio-engineering” (made in bio-engineering,) “this conservative tenancy” (tendency.) c“the benefits and drawback” (drawbacks make more sense.) dhonorable (honourable, please.) e”the very imposing, nay, ruthless figure, who” (has its second comma misplaced; it ought to be after “ruthless”.) fDodds’ (Dodds’s.) gIn an appeal for subscribers; super nova (supernova.) 1Written in USian, “an sensible-looking brush” (a sensible-looking.) 2”The guard led pushed Bill into a chair” (led, or pushed? Or led/pushed?) plus a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech. 3”is audience were in for” (his audience was in for,) there was an unwarranted change in font size part way through, “hoisted by our own petard” (hoist by our own petard.) “There was ghastly, flatulent bang” (a ghastly flatulent bang.) 4”I have laid immersed” (lain immersed,) kilometers (kilometres,) “spermatozoa multiplies in my ovaries” (spermatozoa is plural; so, multiply. Plus spermatozoa are male sex cells, they would multiply in testes, not ovaries.) 5Written in USian. 6Written in USian, “ – hat’s how the file translated” (that’s.) “At the start of its final battle started G4.A controlled the sector” (As its final battle started G4.a; or, At the start of its final battle G4.A,) “advantage point” (it’s vantage point, no “ad”.) 7”The list of his best loved authors ….include (includes,) “the unique SF canon … go virtually ignored” (goes.)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 233 p. Another of the novels on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist.

 Exit West cover

In an unnamed Middle-Eastern city on the threshold of becoming embroiled in an insurrection, Saeed and Nadia meet while attending evening class. Despite wearing a black robe that covers her from toe to neck she tells him, “I don’t pray,” and on their first coffee together answers his question about the reason for her attire by saying, “So men don’t fuck with me.” As their relationship develops mysterious black doors are meanwhile beginning to appear at various locations on Earth, allowing people to move from place to place without traversing the ground, air, or sea between.

The relationship between Seed and Nadia becomes closer but when given the opportunity Saeed says he doesn’t want to have sex till they are married. Nadia’s response is pithy. To have Nadia as the less repressed of the two (she was independent enough to live in her own flat and had taken a previous lover,) to be the unreligious one of the pair, is a neat touch by Hamid. History has its own way with them, though, as the insurgents take over the city and life becomes repressive and dangerous. On Saeed’s mother’s death Nadia moves into his family’s apartment. They keep a fake marriage certificate in case of inquiries.

The militants are only ever in the background – though they do give Hamid the chance to convey the flavour of their impact – but they provide the impulse for our lovers to take a chance on escaping via a black door. The doors are essentially a fantasy element. How they work is never gone into, they just appear and do their, effectively magical, work.

Nadia and Saeed first alight on the Greek island of Mykonos, confined to a refugee camp, then later another door transports them to a plush but otherwise unoccupied London flat. Soon the flat fills up with more migrants through the door, unrest at the incomers builds up in the UK and the neighbourhood becomes ghettoised and a microcosm of the wider immigrant experience.

It is perhaps a flaw that Hamid doesn’t quite fully explore this strange new world where borders have been for all practical purposes abolished – and I suspect he is far too sanguine about the political accommodation the British state makes with the migrants, one which, in any case Saeed and Nadia eschew by taking another door to the US. Hamid’s main interest lies in portraying the migrant experience through the arc of Nadia and Saeed’s love affair, the strains their uncertain existence puts on the relationship between. Hamid also does a lot of telling rather than showing, but that is not uncommon among writers more celebrated than he is.

Hamid makes the point that migration is a trauma for the individual, “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” and that, “We are all children who lose our parents ….. and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity.” Then again, “Everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (This is why nostalgia, a yearning for a lost golden age, is such a pernicious emotion.)

Despite Exit West’s nomination for the BSFA Award, nothing in Hamid’s treatment betokens Science Fiction. This is really a mainstream novel (albeit a good mainstream novel) with an SF idea bolted on. The black doors are not necessary for the plot to work and the implications of easier transit between countries are rather skated over.

All three nominees I’ve read so far are lacking in some regards. I really don’t know which novel to place first; only the one I won’t.

Pedant’s corner:- legs akimbo (legs cannot be placed on hips; at least not on the same body’s hips,) fit (fitted.)

Interzone 274 Has Arrived

Interzone 274 cover
Paris Adrift cover

After its brief hiatus, Interzone is back, this time with issue 274.

Among the usual selection of goodies – including no less than seven stories – this issue contains my review of Paris Adrift by E J Swift.

Ken Dodd

So goodbye, then, Ken Dodd.

He was one of those one-offs. Utterly sui generis. A comedian with more than a touch of the surreal. The diddy men from Knotty Ash and the jam butty mines they worked in were a genius invention, seeming so exotic it was a surprise to discover Knotty Ash was an actual location in Liverpool. But he built an engaging fantasy world out of it.

I’d forgotten till I saw the clip on the news that in the early 60s he had a TV show where the diddy men appeared as puppets.

He managed to survive a brush with the tax man and incorporated the experience into his act without alienating his audience whom he famously gave value for money, playing long shows. It didn’t matter whether you laughed at one of his jokes or not, there’d be another along soon enough and he’d get you with that, or the next.

Not content with “pure” comedy he was also a reasonable ventriloquist while at the same time playing against the form. And he was a chart topping singer.

He had a big hit with Happiness and his recording of Tears was the biggest selling single of 1965 (and the 39th biggest selling single in British chart history.)

The good lady heard one of his songs played in tribute on the radio today and remarked how good a voice he had. I tracked the song down. This is no just-get-by, song-and-dance-man effort. He performs it with total conviction. I wouldn’t have taken to it at the time but I recognise its quality now.

Ken Dodd: Love Me With All Your Heart

A master of his craft.

Kenneth Arthur Dodd: 8/11/1927 – 11/3/2018. So it goes.

The Rift by Nina Allan

Titan Books, 2017, 421 p. One of the novels on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist.

 The Rift cover

In 1994, when she was fifteen, Selena Rouane’s two years’ older sister Julie disappeared, an event which has haunted the family ever since. Years later, after Selena has had an on-off relationship with Johnny, who occasionally phones her from Malaysia where lay the job opportunity she ushered him off to, Julie returns to her life saying that in the interim she had been living on the planet Tristane in the Suur system, in the Aww galaxy. No mechanism is described for this. It just happened to her, as if by magic. Neither is there a description of how she managed to get back. Selena is convinced by her story, especially as Julie remembers a particular childhood toy, but their mother is not.

The Rift is oddly constructed. Most of the narration is from Selena’s viewpoint but other perspectives are introduced from time to time to broaden out the story Allan has to tell. We have diary extracts (and one from a terrestrial novel,) newspaper clippings, and a scientific report. In Selena’s recollections of the time of Julie’s disappearance the sections can read like a YA novel. At other times a fairly prosaic mainstream one.

Julie’s knowledge of Tristane’s geography and history as relayed to Selena is derived from the planet’s books, her memories sometimes presented as a gazetteer – akin to Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, only not so comprehensive. (Or did this comparison only come to my mind because of the connection between Allan and Priest?) Some emphasis is laid on a creature known as a creef, a parasite from Tristane’s system companion the planet Dea (once accessible by spaceship, now cut off,) which debilitates its victims from the inside, slowly eroding their mental and physical capabilities as described in a Tristanean novel The Mind-Robbers of Pakwa.

Creef are said to be like a silverfish or centipede. It is here that severe doubts about Julie’s intergalactic voyaging grow on the reader. Would a Tristanean novel really use such Earthbound terms? Then too there are the previous mentions of “Ziploc wallets”; the choice of the name Marillienseet for one of Tristane’s seas and Cally (pronounced Kayleigh) for Julie’s friend in her exile, seemingly pointing to an origin within Julie’s mind, since the band Marillion is referred to several times in the terrestrial sections of the book. Later we find that “centigrade” is the Tristanean unit of temperature. Plus in one of the “gazetteer” extracts Tristane’s main raw material, julippa, is stated to be similar to rubber – surely the entry’s writer would not even have known what rubber is; yet Julie would. And of course the correspondence between “julippa” and “Julie” is marked. None of these is presented as Julie trying to make a terrestrial comparison for the sake of clarity.

An invocation of the fake Grand Duchess Anastasia, Franziska Czenstkowska, otherwise known as Anna Anderson, is another powerful steer towards the possibility that “Julie”’s memories have been constructed from newspaper and other accessible information. The case was a brief media infatuation, as such things are. And what to make of Cally’s statement to Julie, “‘The written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones’”?

Allan’s characterisation is good, even the minor players in the story appear as rounded people (though those on Tristane are more barely sketched.) A nod to the importance of reading (and the lack of awareness in ignoring genre?) is given by the sentences, “Categorisation is a kind of brainwashing. How do you know which books will turn out to be important to you, until you’ve encountered them?’ Yet it is a big ask to read this as SF rather than a quotidian novel with SF trappings. Though she clearly feels an affinity with speculative fiction other qualities in Allan’s writing speak more loudly.

Two of the four BSFA Award shortlisted novels down. Two to go. I might not manage one of them though.

Pedant’s corner:- broach (several times; that particular style of jewellery is spelled “brooch”,) “her beside clock radio” (bedside clock radio,) “it still fit” (fitted,) “for not pursing it” (pursuing.) “The southern polar regions …… remains largely unmapped” (regions remain unmapped,) “[its support plinths] are still judged by certain scientists … to be a logistical impossibility” (from a gazetteer extract. Logistics is the art of moving, lodging and supply; the rest of the sentence does not support this meaning. The materials for the construction must have been able to be transported and lodged; that is, supplied. But if this was merely one of Julie’s imaginings Allan may have used the wrong term deliberately,) “the [organic] bond takes place at the sub-atomic level” (how is that possible? Organic bonds occur between atoms,) “on the playground” (the usual expression is “in the playground”,) “in her stocking feet” (it’s “stockinged feet”,) “‘one less thing to worry about’” (was in dialogue, but it still ought to be “fewer”, as it should five lines later, in plain text,) sung (sang.)

The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2016, 443 p

 The Fifth Season cover

The world contains a single supercontinent subject to perennial seismic disturbances via earthquake or volcanic eruption. Its inhabitants call this uncertain land The Stillness. Certain of them have the genetic capability to incite or direct the forces causing the upheavals. This arguably puts the book squarely in Fantasy territory but a Science-Fictional gloss is provided by the information that rogga (or orogenes, the term used depends on the speaker’s kindliness, or lack thereof, towards them) have organs known as sessapinae in their brain stems which confer the ability to sense and alter their surroundings and the rocks beneath, all the way down to the magma. Rogga are viewed with fear by the general populace and may be killed when discovered or else sent off to the Fulcrum in the great central city of Yumenes to be trained by Guardians into controlling their abilities for the greater good. A system of rings denotes adepts’ relative proficiencies (think belts in judo.) For the rest, life is mediated by a body of aphorisms known as stonelore.

The novel has three narrative viewpoints, sequentially interwoven through the early part of the book and carefully chosen by Jemisin to reflect her invented world. One strand is narrated in the second person (though by a woman called Essun whose husband Jija, before running away with their daughter, killed their toddler son when he in turn, in Essun’s absence, inadvertently revealed his rogga nature.) This strand is concerned with Essun’s search to be reunited with her daughter. We also experience the adolescent life of Damaya, a young girl whose frightened parents invite the Guardians to take her away to be trained and through whom the rigours and restrictions placed on an orogene are revealed. The third strand follows Syenite, a four-ring sent by the Fulcrum on a mission to clear the harbor of a town named Allia of an outgrowth of coral blocking shipping access. She is overseen by the ten-ring Alabaster (orogenes take the name of a rock when they achieve their first ring) in the hope the pair will produce orogenically gifted offspring. Neither Syenite nor Alabaster is particularly keen on this requirement. Their lack of agency in this and other regards is explicitly compared to slavery, which of course it is. Though it becomes obvious later on that the three strands are not contemporaneous each is narrated in the present tense. In addition every chapter has an epigraph (derived from stonelore) but only at its end.

Internal evidence implies that this world may be our Earth long after a geological catastrophe killed off most of humanity with only a few surviving to repopulate the world, and their descendants experiencing a series of Fifth Seasons in which environmental consequences of seismic upheavals result in societal breakdowns. There is a degree of technological backwardness but only a degree. Transportation is on a human or animal powered scale (or sail in the case of ships) but yet, curiously, the society still has antibiotics and blood testing.

Jemisin’s characterisation is excellent. With the possible exception of the second person narrator (the choice of that mode inevitably involves a distancing, though Jemisin has good reason to employ it as Essun is trying to be as detached from her situation as possible,) the reader experiences the book’s denizens as real people. They are as complex and flawed as humans usually are. Though we know there must be a connection between Dayama, Syenite and Essun it is a considerable achievement by Jemisin that its form remains opaque till close to the book’s end.

This was certainly worthy of winning the Hugo Award in 2016. Its sequel The Obelisk Gate also won in 2017. I’ll certainly be looking out for both it and the third in Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, The Stone Sky, plus her previous novels.

Pedant’s corner:- as if sawed (sawn,) “takes a lot out of a you” (a lot out of you,) “these are just are shakes” (has one “are” too many,) aparatus (apparatus,) “gets ahold of himself” (gets a hold,) “but metal rusts” (metals corrode, but only iron rusts; you cannot get rust from any other metal,) “there’s iron ore in some of it and it’s rusted from the moisture in her skin” (iron ore does not rust; it is rust.) “None of you say anything” (None of you says anything,) Yumenes’ (Yumenes’s, which is used later,) “none of them are allowed to ..” (none of them is allowed to,) no opening quote mark when a chapter starts with a piece of dialogue, prestitious (prestigious,) adaption (context suggests adoption.)

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