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Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2016, 416 p.

 The Obelisk Gate cover

Second books of trilogies can be difficult to negotiate – for reader and writer. Jemisin compounded this problem for herself by the triple narrative in the first book, The Fifth Season, which featured three story strands concentrating on the experiences of Damaya, Syenite and Essun whose link was only confirmed late on. The trick she pulled off there could not be repeated in the next instalment hence the narration here is slightly less involved. One – apparently second person – strand carries on the story of Essun from The Fifth Season, another focuses on her daughter, Nassun, for whom Essun was searching in the first book. Once again each chapter has an epigraph (derived from stonelore) but only at its end. There are also occasional “interludes” set in a different typeface. Nevertheless Jemisin is still doing unusual stuff with narrative viewpoint here as it becomes clear that the second person sections are not in fact being related from an outside point of view nor as if by Essun but by someone – or something – else in the overall story.

The thrust of the narrative here is of both Essun and Nassun trying to find or secure places of safety while the latest Season of uncertainty, seismic turmoil and climate calamity unfolds. Nassun’s main danger, though, comes from her father, who hates orogenes/rogga so much that he killed her younger brother Uche before stealing Nassun away and is unwilling to accept that Nassun is one – and an adept at that. Essun is still being guided by Alabaster to use her orogenic powers to nullify the prospect of Seasons ever recurring. This has something to do with Father Earth being annoyed that the Moon was removed from its orbit which in turn destabilised Earth’s geology. The Moon is due to return close to Earth and it might be possible to change its trajectory to ensure its recapture. The strange obelisks that allow orogenic power to be focused are a key to this. Throw in the mysterious stone-eaters and there is a lot of SF/fantasy meat to chew on.

According to Essun’s now failing tutor Alabaster the ancient word for the stuff of orogeny is … magic: but Essun locates it as a silvery stuff in people’s bloodstreams. Magic, she believes, derives from life – that which is alive, or was alive, or even which was “alive so many ages ago that it has turned into something else”. The orogene aspect of the whole tale is of course a commentary on prejudice. Yet in this scenario the ordinary people would be right to be wary of orogenes, who do, after all, have the power to kill – and as a reflex at that. And in The Obelisk Gate the skills Essun develops in using the obelisks means that she might as well be a God(dess.)

There was enough here to make me want to read the final book but as to whether The Obelisk Gate deserved to win the Hugo (as it did, Jemisin’s second such in consecutive years) that’s another matter.

Pedant’s corner:- No opening quote marks when a chapter begins with a piece of direct speech. “None of them pierce his body” (None pierces,) “for all intents and purposes” (it’s usually “to all intents and purposes”.) “Within the compound are a handful of” (is a handful,) naivete (choose; English naivety or French naiveté, not the mongrel naivete,) herbivarous (herbivorous.)

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