Completed 10/15/2016 Reviewed 10/18/2016
This book is a bit of a difficult read at first. There are three character narratives, one in second person present, the other two in third person present. Each character is an orogene, someone who can move or stay geophysical forces like earthquakes and volcanos. Through them, we learn what it is to be an orogene in three different circumstances. First, you are young and your gift (or curse) is first discovered, you are taken to the Fulcrum, where you are assigned a Guardian who has often abusive control over you. Second, you are halfway through your orogene training in the controlled environment that is none too pleasant. But now you’re outside the Fulcrum on a journey and have to use your gift. Third, when you live with your gift hidden from everyone, or as hidden as possible. (Sorry, it’s quite by accident that I began writing in 2nd person). None of these situations is pleasant. It turns out being an orogene isn’t pleasant.
This is magnificent world building. It’s incredibly imaginative, a world where the magic is in control of the earth. It’s a little like being an earth bender from the cartoon Avatar: The Last Air Bender. But here it’s all about the earth. “Earth” is used like we use “Hell”, and “rust” is a curse. The continent is called The Stillness, but it is anything but still. Hence the need for orogenes to keep the ground from shaking. But the world is afraid of the orogenes for the potential destruction they can cause as well. So they are rounded up and taken to the Fulcrum, a sort of school where they are watched by their sadistic guardians and trained in their gift.
As you can see, the world is very dark, but not dark in a typical middle-ages pseudo-European world. People are light and dark skinned, male and female, and not exclusively heterosexual. It makes for a really well-rounded world. I have to say I occasionally had a hard time remembering who was what race, which I think speaks to how much I am conditioned to thinking that the characters of a story are always default white.
The prose is also amazing. I have to admit, 2nd person is not my favorite tense to read, but those chapters read more easily than I expected. I think it speaks well to Jemisin as a writer. I had a much tougher time reading “Halting State” by Charles Stross, which was also written in 2nd person. Here the narrative flows much better, though it still took me several chapters to get into the swing of the tense. Especially since it alternates with chapters written in 3rd person present.
The one thing I didn’t find was empathy for the characters. I was really interested in what was happening to them, but I wasn’t right there with them. I never completely immersed myself into the story. I found this sad because I was all ready to jump on the five star bandwagon that this book has been riding. Maybe I’m still in a place where I can’t let myself go completely when I’m reading. I found myself a little distanced from it, able to observe that this was an intense, well-crafted book, but not able to feel it. So I give this book four stars out of five.
As a sort of post script, I want to add that the reader should be aware of the glossary at the back of the book. It really helps with understanding the universe of the book. I didn’t discover the glossary until about halfway through the book. Finding it made a bit difference.