Tag Archives: fantasy

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

19161852You can tell a book is a real page turner when you get through most of it on an international flight. You can tell that the series is even better when you read the sequel on the return flight. That’s how good The Fifth Season and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, are.

N. K. Jemisin has created a unique world in which the perils of the characters are trumped only by the perils of the planet they inhabit. The Stillness, as the world is known, is anything but. Constantly racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, the inhabitants of this world have learned to survive in the so-called “fifth season”, when weather patterns, food production, and the very survival of humans is disrupted. Against this backdrop exist a set of humans who have the power to control, at least to some degree, these tremors. For this, they are feared and controlled.

Jemisin’s world is almost as much as a living, breathing entity as her human characters, but not quite. Her human characters are simply outstanding, with a depth that goes beyond typical “non-player character” levels of superficialness and delves deep into what makes them tick. Good guys are shown to be cruel and bad guys are given a deeper side that evokes some sympathy for their actions. This is a world that is not black and white in any sense. Rather it is a world of grey burning in fire.

26228034Through this world, Jemisin explores complex social questions with a depth and a bluntness that is captivating. She explores questions of social standing, of slavery, of discrimination and persecution, in a way that adds to her story. At one point in The Obelisk Gate, a community is deciding who gets to stay and who should be forced to go, all based on how they were born. The protagonist disrupts the proceedings with the declaration: “No voting on who gets to be people.”

The world that Jemisin has created is complex, not only in the way that it is constantly under threat of another massive earthquake, but also in how the humans have responded to their circumstances. She delves into how people treat other people as well as how people treat their planet: “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 mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” Ultimately, “there is a not-insubstantial chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth.”

Finally, Jemisin’s characters warrant a few more words. Both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate follow an interesting narrative in which three different character arcs are developed in parallel as the story evolves. Not much more can be said without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that this leads to a very interesting narrative structure that keeps the story moving along without revealing too much at once.

Overall, as one might guess, I really enjoyed these two books and highly anticipate the third and final one in the series. Jemisin has created a rich world with a long and detailed history that directly impacts the story. How she resolves it all, how her characters survive what is coming, are questions that I am really looking forward to seeing answered.

The Martian by Andy Weir

9780804139021As a kid, I was drawn a lot more to fantasy than to science fiction, mostly because, in science fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief regarding things that are rooted in science, while in fantasy, that foundation is explicitly thrown out at the beginning. That is, in fantasy, with its magic, dragons, elves, and demons, there was no pretense that the world could exist or was based on some realistic description of nature. Rather, that idea was tossed away and a new world with new rules was built. Science fiction, on the other hand, was meant to be an extension or extrapolation of our scientific understanding of the world and thus, in my mind, required a greater deal of substance to justify the more outlandish places that extrapolation took the author.

That said, there is a genre of science fiction, called hard science fiction, that Wikipedia characterizes as having a much stronger emphasis on scientific accuracy. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an excellent example of this genre.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I imagine many others have. I actually read the book back in the spring, before the movie came out. The plot details the exploits of an astronaut who finds himself abandoned on Mars. For those who haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot any further.

What I will say is that the plot takes scientific accuracy to an extreme, with the protagonist doing everything he can with the equipment he has to stay alive. Weir has been praised for the accuracy of his science by many professional scientists. Of course, there are a few quibbles here and there, but overall, the book strives for, and achieves, a very high degree of scientific authenticity. It is maybe not a surprise to learn that Weir grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

For a book that centers, for the most part, on one man lost on effectively a very remote and very plain island, the plot is fast paced and intriguing. On many occasions, one can’t help but wonder how the hero will solve the next problem he encounters.

If I have one major quibble, it isn’t with the science itself (though I’m certainly not qualified to judge most of it in any technical depth), but rather that one person could be such an expert in so many disciplines. That is a conceit that a novel like this much have, but it is the one place where maybe a suspension of disbelief is really necessary to enjoy the story.

Black and White and Grey All Over

The country is politically very polarized, seemingly more so than ever.  You can see it in the town hall meetings, in the blue vs red electoral maps, and in the very people we hang out with.  For instance, an application has been going around Facebook which shows statistics about your friends.  It is very interesting to see that most people’s friends are very strongly either Democrat or Republican.  There aren’t many people with a relatively even split.  So, not only do we limit our news to sites and channels that we agree with, but we surround ourselves with people we agree with, locking our viewpoints even more rigidly on one side or another.

There has been a lot written about this already.  I’ve read, for example, that people who are religious tend to see more connections between seemingly unconnected events, while less religious people do not.  This is in effect a function of brain chemistry and wiring.  And, there does seem to be a correlation between how religious you are and which party you more strongly identify with.

I also wonder if it might also have something, at least a small part, to do with the stories we tell as a culture.  The cartoons I used to watch as a kid always pitted the “good guys” against the “bad guys”.  But, in retrospect what seems to define most of these stories is that the bad guys had no motivation, they are simply bad, or evil.  For example, the bad guys in “GI Joe” are Cobra.  Their only motivation is to rule the world, but they never say why.  They are just evil.  The same with Skeletor in “He-Man”.  And the Decepticons in “Transformers”.  Even in the “Smurfs”, Gargamel is an evil old man, who doesn’t seem to have any real reason for why he is after the Smurfs (except he wants to eat them).  Each story needs a bad guy, and that bad guy is simply bad.  The universes in which these stories take place are completely black and white.  There is no grey.  This is perhaps epitomized in the games that were popular at the time, such as Dungeons and Dragons and the like, and the fantasy novels that fleshed out these types of worlds.  Evil is an inherent part of the fantasy genre, where evil exists explicitly and simply to destroy.  Again, there is no grey.

Our religions, at least how they are interpreted today, also embody this dichotomy:  God is good, Satan is evil.

I wonder how much these black and white views of the universe, or even those universes in which our stories take place, color our perspectives of the real world.  If everything is black and white, good and evil, are those that disagree with us necessarily bad or evil, since we ourselves certainly are not?  Does that mean, if I’m a Democrat, that the Republicans are bad, and vice versa, leading to the polarization we see today?  Or are our stories a reflection of deeper down hard wiring within our brain to view the world in black and white?  Is that a survival mechanism, an evolutionary advantage that helps us more easily determine friend from foe?

I personally do not believe in absolute good nor evil.  I do not believe that there is some ultimate source for either.  Rather, I think that both good and evil are defined by society, by the norms that society creates within which to moderate itself.  And those norms are typically a result of instincts evolved over many generations.  I think that those we typically consider evil — those that live far outside societal norms — have different brain wiring that does not inhibit their base instincts as much as the general populace.  That is, I think it is essentially a different brain structure that makes it so that these people do not see good and bad in the same way as the rest of us.  Unlike the movies and books, I don’t think anyone views themselves as evil, not in an evil for evil’s sake way, hysterically cackling while committing their foul deeds.  Rather, they view the world differently, most of the time, and cannot distinguish right and wrong in the same way.  Either that, or they are like the rest of us, but get caught up by the situation, the power, the moment, to commit “evil” acts but either in the heat of the moment or for some perceived greater good.

The Ballad of Halferd

A while ago, a friend of mine and I toyed with the idea of writing a novel based upon our role playing experiences. So far, we haven’t made much progress. However, I wrote a few short stories that are attempts to develop background material for that eventual novel. This is one of those stories, which I also had put up on my personal site, but I thought I’d share it here as well. This was originally written on March 27, 1996.


Tarn peaked from the top bunk down at his cell-mate, Halferd the dwarf. The dwarf’s face was still wet from his evening shave. He was lying on his back, his eyes closed, some ancient dwarven hymn rumbling in his chest.


The dwarf opened his right eye and glanced up at Tarn. “Yes, kid?”

“Why are you here?”

“What do you mean, why am I here? The gods made it so. How am I supposed to know why they do what they do?”

“No, I mean here, in the dungeon. How did you end up here?”

“Oh, I see. Well, it all started a while back. A long time ago as humans count time, but it seems like yesterday to me…”


There was a knock at the large wooden door that served as the enterance to the king’s chambers. The king was sitting behind a large stone desk. His face was thin and creased. His red beard was dull and streaked with grey. He coughed as he talked with his closest advisor, an old dwarf with a long white beard, who sat in the corner.

“Come.” called the king.

The door opened. In stepped Halferd, captain of the king’s personal body guards. He was a powerfully shaped creature with arms as thick as any man’s legs. His bright yellow beard flowed down across his chest, past the belt that carried his warhammer. On his back was strapped his weapon of choice: a Durinian heavy crossbow.

“You asked for me, sire?” asked the body guard.

“Yes, old friend. Please, come in.” The king waved over to his advisor. “Nurid and I want to discuss something with you.”

Halferd entered and sat down opposite the king.

“You don’t look too good, sire. Are you ok?”

“Please, Halferd, call me Relin. We’ve been friends too long to go by this royal protocal bullshit. And no, I’m not doing too well. That’s part of the reason we’ve called you here today.”

“I see, Rel.”

“Nurin, would you explain the situation to Hal?”

“Of course, Relin.” The old dwarf stood up and walked around the room. “Halferd, as you no doubt have noticed, there has been a lot of tension in the air lately. Some of the clans have complained about their economic state and equal representation in the Hall of Warriors.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed. It seems like civil war could break out at any time out there.”

“Precisely. We have reliable sources that tell us that Noruk, the leader of the Diamond clan, and Slan, leader of the Lead clan, are just about to forge an alliance and try to over throw the king.” Nurin nodded to Relin.

“I see.” said Halferd. “If that happens, the kingdom will be, for all intents and purposes, destroyed.”

“Correct, Hal,” replied Relin, his voice a heavy rasp. “However, Nurin and I think we’ve come up with a plan and we need your help.”

“Whatever I can do, Rel. You know I’m behind you.”

“As I had hoped.”

“Being king has taken a heavy toll on Relin,” continued Nurin. “He’s become frail and sick, and will probably die soon.”

“Is this true?” Halferd asked, looking to his friend.

“I’m afraid so, Hal. What’s more, I fear that my wasting away will give Noruk and Slan the perfect opportunity to stage their revolt. Therefore, Nurin and I have decided that I must die in a… let’s say more dramatic way.”

“Yes, Hal. The king and I believe that if he is assassinated, it might be the kind of thing that can unite all of us against a common enemy. And it just might stop any civil war.”

“What? Who is going to assassinate you? You are the only thing that is keeping everyone from revolting. It’s their loyalty and respect of you that is keeping them at bay! Who would do such a thing?”

Relin looked into the eyes of his old friend. “You, Halferd.”


“Yes,” replied Nurin. “We have been relying on your loyalty to the king to help us carry out our plan.”

“You mean to murder the king.” Halferd eyed Nurin suspiciously. “And what do you get out of this, Nurin?”

“Nothing,” replied Relin. “He will die too.”

“I see. Are you sure that this is the best way?”

“It is the only way that we can see,” said the king, sighing as he reclined in his chair.

“I still don’t know.” said Halferd. “I don’t know if one solitary assassin would be target enough for all of the people to turn their hatred towards.”

Nurin sat down on the corner of the desk. “We don’t think so either,” he said. “That’s why the rest of the Royal Body Guard is going to help you.”

“They’ll never do it!”

The king coughed. “We’ve already talked to them, Hal. They don’t know the details, but they are willing to help. They know the consequences. More than likely, they will all be executed when they are caught. It is you, the leader of the traitors, who will receive the harshest sentence.”

Halferd whispered under his breath. “Exile.”

“Exactly. I know I am asking a lot from you, Hal, but I see no other way. We’ve been running over scenarios for almost half a year, and this seems the most plausible. What do you say?”

Halferd looked at the king, a mixture of fear, resignation, and pain in his eyes. “You already know my answer. That’s why you asked me here in the first place.”

“Thanks Hal. Know that, even though the kingdom will never know what you are about to do for your people, I do, and I thank you.”

Nurin walked over to a cabinet and grabbed some scrolls. He handed them to Halferd. “These are the details of the plans for the assassination. Your men don’t know about these, so you will have to fill them in. You need to make sure these are destroyed before anything actually happens. The last thing we need is the revelation that this was all planned by us.”

“Of course,” said Halferd. He took the scrolls and stood up, turning toward the door.


“Yes, Rel?”

The king stood up and walked over to his friend. The weight of his office was obvious as the dwarf’s body hunched over as he walked. He stood infront of Hal.

“I’m really sorry I have to ask you to do this. I hope you understand.”

“I do, Rel.”

The two men hugged each other. Then, quickly, Halferd opened the door and left, a tear running down his cheek.


“Well, Tarn, after that, things went pretty fast. My men and I were supposed to storm the throne room when the general of the army was away. It was his role, unbeknownst to him, to capture us after the assassination. The king has already named his son successor several years before. However, his son wasn’t all that popular, so he was also one of our targets. The king figured that, if his successor was killed, Hagorn, the general, would probably be named king, and everyone felt that the people could rally behind Hagorn, especially if he was a hero for capturing the traitors.

So, during one of Hagorn’s excursions, while the king and some of his advisors were discussing the chances of war with the orks, my men and I went into action. We were, of course, present in the room, being the body guards of the king. There were five of us. I gave the signal and two of them immediately ran to the royal family’s quarters to kill the king’s wife and two daughters. I don’t know if the king had told them about the plan, but he felt that we had to do this in order to make the assassination that much more tragic and rally the people that much more. His son and brother-in-law were in the throne room along with several of their other advisors, including Nurin. As the three ran off, one closed the doors to the throne room and bolted it shut. The two other men, one of which was a good friend of mine named Jugad, and I swiftly went at the advisors. It didn’t take long to kill them all, since none of them were armed, relying on us to protect them. Soon, only Nurin, the king, and his son were left. Jugad smashed the king’s son upside the head with his morning star, splattering his brains all over the king’s bright white robe. The king didn’t even blink. It was my duty to kill Nurin and the king. The two men sent to take care of the royal family returned, their weapons covered with blood. Both the king and Nurin nodded. I took my crossbow and notched two bolts. I aimed and fired one into the middle of Nurin’s head. The poison I had put on the bolt killed him instantly and painlessly. Then I aimed the other at the king. I stared down the bow, right into the eye my friend. I pulled back for a moment, letting the bow hang in my hand on my side. I looked at the king for a moment. I saluted him. My men followed my example and saluted him as well. The king, a tear running down his cheek, looked at us. I raised the bow again as the king returned our salute. The bolt flew across the room, piercing the chest of my friend, puncturing his heart and causing it to explode. The pain was intense but brief.

It wasn’t long before Hagord returned and broke into the throne room. We were vastly outnumbered and two of my men died in the storming. Soon, we were all captured and taken away. As we were pushed along the road running through the main cavern, through the crowd of people who had come to see what was going on, I saw my wife. She looked at me, and turned away, not saying a word. That was the last I ever saw of her.

We were taken to the central market, where we were quickly tried and convicted. They shaved the beards off of everyone of us, a sign of shame for the crime we had committed. As the king had predicted, all of my men were sentenced to death, all except me. I was exiled. They made me watch as my men were bound to gigantic boulder which had an axel running through the middle. Fifty men got on each side and pushed on the axel, making the boulder roll and crush my men. The crunch of their bones, the imploding of the skulls filled the air, but they never cried out.

I received the harshest sentence: exile from the dwarven kingdom. It is hard for you humans to understand this, but our caverns and caves are everything to us. Being forced above ground is the ultimate punishment for us, even worse than death.

After that, I wandered around. At first, I was a body guard to some merchants, then a bouncer at a dive of a bar in the city. Eventually, about fifty years after I had been exiled, I made it here. There was word that miners were wanted, men to excavate tunnels. I relished the chance to dig in the dirt again, to be underground, to be surrounded by solid earth on all sides. I came and was hired. It wasn’t long after that my employer revealed his true colors and imprisoned me down here, to work as his slave. You know the rest.”

There was a silence as Tarn digested what his friend had just told him. After a short while, he finally spoke up.

“Hal, can I ask you another question?”

“What’s that?”

“If having a cleanly shaved face is a sign of shame for your people, why do you still keep it that way?”

“For me, it’s not a sign of shame. For me, it’s a badge, a symbol of the loyalty my men had for me and that we all had for the king and the kingdom. It’s the least I can do for my men, in remembrance of them. Now get to sleep, Tarn. We have a lot of work to do.”

The dwarf rolled over to his side and soon was snoring loudly, loud enough to get yells from some of the other cells. Tarn just stared at the dark ceiling, wondering about the life of his friend, thinking that really, his life hadn’t been so tough.