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Location: Newark, Delaware, United States

My name is David P. Bellamy. The only significant thing not mentioned elsewhere here is, I think, that I almost always prefer to read a book instead of watching a movie.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Reviews

I don't think I have written a book review of a novel since I wrote book reports in school; papers in college English literature classes are not the same thing. However, I have read three fascinating books over the last few months which I want to discuss. The books are: (In reverse order of publication, I think) Love in the Time of Unraveling, by Franetta McMillian, Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Broken Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin.

Franetta McMillian's and N. K. Jemisin's books are parts of trilogies; Nalo Hopkinson's is a stand-alone. While searching for these on Amazon, I discovered that Broken Kingdoms is the last volume of a trilogy. I have read the first one but not the second. However, this review involves only Broken Kingdoms, although much of what I say applies also to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is the first of this series. Love in the Time of Unraveling is the first book of a trilogy; it is the author's first published novel.

One aspect of myth, perhaps the defining aspect, is that it involves the relationship between mortals and immortals. Magic, or Magick, is often seen as a power of immortals which may or may not be given to select mortals under some circumstances. These three books deal with this in dramatically different ways. All of them are wonderful blends of sf and Magickal fantasy, written by black women authors. SF and fantasy by black women nowadays seem to me to be the most exciting current part of science fiction and fantasy. These books form a tripod of approaches to the relationship between humans and immortals; even though they have different styles and characters, and probably draw upon different Pantheons for their mythic underpinnings, the three of them taken together provide a more complete picture of the human/deity interface than any one or two of them alone.

Broken Kingdoms is another example of Jemisin's continuing break with the Celtic, or more generally Mediaeval European, settings for heroic fantasy. This was so long overdue that it is a real breath of fresh air, in my opinion. (I wish I had read this entire trilogy; I will do so soon.) The overwhelming political intrigue and larger than life heroics makes this book satisfying in a standard way. The focus is on the political intrigue, and phenomena far more important than the individual characters' problems. The interaction between humans and the assorted gods, demigods, and demons provides a depth and texture that I find really satisfying.

Sister Mine is at the opposite extreme. The issues around which the story revolves are personal ones. They involve sibling conflicts, family dynamics involving disturbing or strange relatives, and the problem of being mortal humans who are closely related to immortals. This one gets more closely at what someone (Joseph Campbell, maybe?) says in effect is the archetypal Creation Myth. There are issues of cosmic significance in the setting, but they are peripheral. To avoid spoilers, I will not say more about this. I will ask, however: Who knew that kudzu could have such mythic importance?

Love in the Time of Unraveling takes a third path. Gods and goddesses do not appear as characters in the book, but they are always present and accessible to the characters through ritual invocation. In this sense, this book is the most realistic of the three, since this is how most of us encounter deities, if we encounter them at all. It is also the most dystopian, since it takes place on a future Earth where the air is so polluted and toxic that it is the rule rather than the exception for ordinary people, not wealthy enough to afford extreme remedies, to die young of environmental diseases. I am eager to read the rest of the trilogy when it becomes available. In Love in the Time of Unraveling and Sister Mine, I find myself deeply caring about the characters; I want to spend more time with them. I am thus sad that Sister Mine is not part of a larger work. In Broken Kingdoms, I am most absorbed by the plot and story arc. The characters are interesting, but they do not captivate me as those of the other two books do. All three of these books make it clear that deities are not necessarily superior to mortals, but they are very different. They have different challenges, different abilities, and different needs from humans. I am absolutely thrilled by all three of these books; and I am very glad that I happened to have read them all, one after another, which led me to see the complementarity that I would likely have missed otherwise.

If any readers here have not read them, please get them as soon as possible and do so!

[In the interest of disclosure, I will say that Nalo Hopkinson and Franetta Mcmillian are friends of mine. Jemisin I have met only once, briefly. I want to thank Nalo for help with the html coding, after the review was written. I apologize that the links do not work, but the books should be easy to find.]