In November I hit a really, really bad reading slump. It was a combination of things, work, stress, other hobbies catching my interest (I waited eight years for Red Dead Redemption 2- I earned some game time), and of course, the holidays. But now I’m finding it super hard to get back in the habit of reading.
I was worried a short story collection was going to be too easy to pick up and put back down (and therefore walk away from) but I shouldn’t have. This is a truly beautiful collection of stories and I am so grateful to have read it. (And it only took me five days- progress!) If you are a fan of Jemisin’s, or if you’ve ever been interested but haven’t taken the plunge, this is a must read.
I was iffy about The Fifth Season. I didn’t see what people loved so much about it. I was upset at the treatment of children in the book. But so many people love The Broken Earth trilogy, that my feelings toward it made me question if I’d read it wrong. The jury is still out, but I’ll definitely give it another chance.
First, I want to say that Jemisin’s creativity and skill as an author really shine in this book. There are some running themes, but every story felt unique and different. The characters felt distinct. The book starts with a phenomenal and heartfelt introduction about the struggles she faced as a beginning author, so if you tend to skip intros, don’t, this one is quick and well worth reading.
It opens with: “The Ones Who Stay And Fight”, she says is a response to a LeGuin story (Omelas?). I had not read LeGuin’s story and so I don’t think I understood this one very well, and I’m having a hard time recalling any details about it now. “The City Born Great” comes next. It was a little more on the abstract side and as a story I just didn’t love it. The writing was phenomenal though.
“Red Dirt Witch” stands out as being one of my absolute favorites. Following the first two stories it really showcased her versatility as a writer because it definitely had a folk tale type feel as opposed to the frenetic, urban feel of the prior story. The ending was killer.
“L’Alchemista” was another favorite. It’s about food and love of food, and felt very rustic. It also made me super nostalgic for my mom’s cooking. Aside from that it was just really fun. “The Effluent Engine” comes next, and while an excellent story, it reminded me a lot of “The Black Gods Drums”. Nothing wrong with that- I loved the TBGD, but it maybe felt a little too familiar and I was left wanting a little something more.
“Cloud Dragon Skies” delves a little into the sci-fi realm, but the world in it evoked a lot of the same feeling that I got from reading “The Fifth Season”, an overarching threat of doom, grim tone, etc. I enjoyed this one and especially the ending. “The Trojan Girl” is also more sci-fi than fantasy, but also one of her more abstract pieces. I liked the overall message, but wasn’t crazy about the story itself. “Valedictorian” is another SF/dystopian piece that definitely has a haunting message.
“The Storyteller’s Replacement” I actually can’t recall very well, but I remember thinking that I thought it made for a good interlude in the book, which makes me think it wasn’t a very strictly structured short story. “The Brides of Heaven” is about a group of women who land on a planet that seems to be killing all the males. It’s an open ended story (which aren’t my favorite) but in this case, because the time investment wasn’t significant, I was okay with it. The feelings it evokes are definitely sort of eerie and spooky and it will stick with me for awhile.
“The Evaluators” I loved. Jemisin mentioned in the intro she enjoyed writing short stories because it gave her an opportunity to experiment and I think this piece is one of those. It’s told through a series of memos/logs and was precisely the kind of sci-fi/horror story that I love. “Walking Awake” also ventures into horror (content warnings for child trauma/violence) and wasn’t a favorite for me although again, I loved the message.
“The Elevator Dancer” is a quick story that almost felt like it could have been a spin off of Orwell’s 1984. I liked this a lot more than I liked 1984.
We shift gears back to fantasy with “Cuisine des Memoires” and it stands out as another favorite in the book. Kind of a love letter to the power food can have in our lives (or at least in our memories). I kind of also got the message that food is one of the oldest ways in the world to show you care for someone. Whether just by sharing it or by putting your heart on a plate.
“Stone Hunger” is a prelude to The Fifth Season that I actually enjoyed a lot more than the book itself. I sort of wish I’d read it first because I think I would have appreciated what came next much more.
“On the Banks of the River Lex” was very reminiscent of Gaiman’s American Gods and not in a bad way. I absolutely love the concept and love the way she portrayed Death. “The Narcomancer” was just meh for me, but I liked the ending.
“Henosis” is another experimental story told non-linearly that worked really well in short story format. The ending is another ambiguous one but I liked the format enough not to care. It also draws some interesting conclusions about celebrity in America.
“Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” is a sci-fi story with a super original concept that I thoroughly enjoyed (the title is a hint). “The You Train” is another abstract piece but again I loved the message. The Nike slogan “Just Do It” comes to mind, and I also found it super relatable because if I didn’t have a child at home, I think I’d board The You Train myself.
“Non-Zero Probabilities” was about exactly that, non-zero probabilities. It was definitely interesting, but coming at the end of so many other fantastic stories, not a standout to me. We close with “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”. This was a favorite, and one of the only stories that made me really care about the characters. It’s about some (fictional) odd happenings during and after Hurricane Katrina, and while that storm and it’s destruction were no joke, I found the story itself really hopeful, and the overall tone fairly light (probably gross misunderstandings on my part).
I think each story had something to offer and all of them were well worth reading. Jemisin is a master at evoking tone and feeling with her writing. Even in the stories I didn’t love, she still managed to make me feel something, and I think that’s especially difficult to do in short stories.