BOOK REVIEWS

Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

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Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

THE LAST: BOOK REVIEW

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The Last
 by Hanna Jameson
★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

“You know what we think of as right and wrong don’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.”

The Last is a very compelling read. The story has plenty of atmosphere, well-rounded characters, and poses a lot of interesting questions.
I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as yet another post-apocalyptic novel…to do so seems reductive. The Last depicts the way in which a group of people once isolated —cut off from the rest of society—could act. There is tension underlining a lot of the characters’ interactions especially after they discover the body of a young girl in one of the hotel’s water tanks.
It is Jon, our narrator and an American historian, who decides to find out who killed this mysterious girl. Was she murdered before the nuclear attacks? Is her murderer still in the hotel? While the others believe that the girl’s death has little importance compared to what could possibly be the end of the civilisation as they know it…but Jon is determined to find out what exactly happened to this girl.
His investigation is impeded by their situation…the approaching winter season, their dwindling resources, and a growing sense of unrest interfere with Jon’s search for the murderer’s identity.

I thought that that the author did a brilliant job. Jon’s account —which takes the form of a diary of sorts— pulled me right in. As time passes, and as he and the others attempt to come to terms with their new ‘nightmarish’ reality, Jon revisits that ‘first day’, when he first heard/saw the news about the nuclear attacks. Grief, guilt, and shock, make an impact on both Jon and his account.
Being a historian, he wants to ‘commit to paper’ the history, and experiences of the other survivors. Also, as he begins to suspect that the girl’s murderer is still at the hotel, ‘interviewing’ the others gives him the chance to carry out his investigation.

Jon and the other survivors felt very fleshed out. I loved the way in which Jameson can make you care or respect characters who are rather unlikable. Jon’s account is not always reliable yet I ended up really liking him. He has retained a strong sense of justice (view spoiler) and while he might not always say the right thing, he could be incredibly understanding and kind. I also appreciated the way in which his ‘bravery’ is different from the usual ‘act/shoot’ now sort of bravery. Just because he is a thinker, and not a fighter, doesn’t make unable to act in order to help the others. Of course, given the situation he is in, it isn’t at all surprising that he begins to suspect some of his fellow survivors.
The survivors at the hotel come from different backgrounds. They are shown to have different personalities and priorities, and often clash in their views on politics etc. Funnily enough, I ended up really appreciating Tomi, the only American other than Jon.At the start I found her grating and once we discover that she voted for Trump…well, I really hated her. Yet, as things get more tense, she shows that she has plenty of courage and can be incredibly loyal. By the end, I understood and respected her, flaws and all.
I also really liked Nathan, the former bartender of the hotel, Yuka Yobari, who is at the hotel alongside her family, and Rob, who is possibly the sweetest character of them all.

As the novel progresses I found the creepy setting and the mounting tension among the survivors to be nerve-racking.
Jameson’s novel poses a lot of interesting questions; do laws and justice still matter in the even of a a societal collapse? What would you be prepared to do when it comes to us vs. them/me vs. you in order to survive?

“…we’re friends,” I said.
Jessie laughed. “Are you serious? It’s the end of the world, Jon. Grow up.”

The ending did feel rushed —especially when compared to the rest of Jon’s narrative— but I wasn’t disappointed by the story’s conclusion.
The Last is a compelling page-turning novel with a story that gives readers plenty of food for thought.

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