The Broken Earth Trilogy

In her brilliant short story collection, How Long Til Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin’s lead-off story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” riffs on Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to devastating effect. I’m not a crier under most circumstances, just ask my wife and she’ll confirm that. But at the end of Jemisin’s story, I cried because her vision for how life could be was so beautiful. LeGuin’s story essentially asks the question: “If a society’s thriving required the exploitation and suffering of a single individual – just one – would that be worth it?” For those who can’t agree to that condition, their “only” choice is to walk away. And I use those quotes because Jemisin’s response is exactly the right one when presented with binary options: look for a third way.

I remember a professor encouraging us to walk that very road. It’s very rare that there are only two options, and typically when given only two options to choose from, neither is adequate. So, find a third way.

Jemisin’s third way is to stay and fight. Fight the system that demands either submission or exploitation. Neither option is good, so let’s fight for a third way. A way in which justice and mercy meet, and everyone has the chance to truly thrive. No one needs to be excluded or exploited. No one.

The Broken Earth trilogy feels like an extended meditation on the same theme. What would we do if an entire group of people is subjugated, oppressed, made into chattel, feared, controlled, and lynched for the benefit of everyone else? Does that sound like any society in the primary world? Mmhmm.

Would we buy into the system and seek our own personal thriving within it? Would we remove ourselves and live isolated from everyone else? Or would we break the intentionally flawed system and build something that works for everyone?

Unsurprisingly, most people in Jemisin’s world make the same choices that white America made throughout its sad history. Buy in wholesale, or pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But we don’t have to choose between maintaining the status quo and burning the whole thing down. We, like Jemisin’s characters, can choose instead to bring justice. That will require burning. It will also require maintaining parts of the status quo. But the end result needs to be a new thing entirely.

You see, Jemisin brilliantly places her readers inside the perspective of people within her world’s exploited group. We see how they feel when they are bred like cattle, threatened with death for simply being who and what they are, when their emotions are manipulated and twisted against them, and a whole host of terrors are inflicted upon them. And she does this by laying the groundwork in book one. She shows how the exploited participate in their own exploitation, and believe the lies that this way is truly what’s best for everyone. We see how they are taught to buy into the system as the way things “have to be.” In book two, she spells out the options and makes the sides clear. And because she recognizes that this is not a binary decision that is stuck in a duality of warring opposites, there are more than two sides. Finally, in book three she advances the story to its beautiful conclusion while narrating the history that brought us to where her story started.

Since I just mentioned the ending, let me digress for just a moment to say that Jemisin’s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read. Wrapping up a series in a satisfying way is hard. I know this, not because I’ve done it, but because I’ve read enough series to see that not every one can do it well. But the ending to The Broken Earth trilogy is so good that I reread it several times, and I teared up each time. (I know! This, from the guy who rarely cries!) Jemisin’s ending is just so fitting, so relevant, so necessary. When it comes to making the world better, “Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.” (Man! Even typing those words gets me again.) Channeling Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Jemisin emphasizes that we cannot wait for a “more convenient season.” (And yes, I feel the resonance between the imagined convenient season in Dr. King’s quote and the Seasons in Jemisin’s world.)

Because of course there can’t be a more convenient season when the third way – the way of justice – requires a breaking. The old way must be broken for a just way to emerge. Would the city of Castrima be what it is without the magnitude of this Season? No. Would any see the need for roggas and stills (I’m deliberately using the in-world, offensive slang here – and you don’t need to try hard to hear the phonetic resonance between rogga and a different slur in the primary world) to work together if not for the destruction Alabaster brought about? Not a chance. But the destruction opens the door to a new world. No Fulcrums. No Guardians. Just people.

The destruction of this trilogy is not senseless. It is like rebreaking a bone so it can set properly, so real healing can take place without further pain and deformity. It is not wholesale, wanton destruction. It is targeted. Intentional. Hopeful.

The same can be said of the entire trilogy, in fact. It is targeted, intentional, and hopeful.

The exploitation built into the system of Jemisin’s world goes all the way down and all the way back. Society in the present is structured around use castes. It’s incredible. Because the earth is broken by an exploitative system, even the way humans view themselves and each other has been broken. The focus shifts from personhood to utility. And this is narrated powerfully in the story’s main character. In her story, yes, but mostly in her names. You see, she was given the name Damaya by her family, but that family feared her and didn’t know how to love. So, they gave her away to the Fulcrum where she was given the name Syenite. But at the Fulcrum she was exploited and treated like an animal that could be bred and controlled. Finally, there’s Essun, the name she chooses for herself, the name she is called by those who come to know and love her.

Going back in time, Syl Anagist used the lowest caste as literal fuel for their progress, and when they recognized that those resources would eventually be used up they began to adjust the definition of who fits in that lowest caste. Who can be used and who cannot? But they know, too, that even with an ever-adjusting and expanding lowest caste, their resources are finite, and so they need a new option. They have a chance to choose a third way, one that refuses systemic exploitation. But instead, they are unable to see that such a system is evil, even when it no longer exploits people (now, the lowest caste probably wasn’t seen as human, and in the backstory we’re given Houwha, Kelenli, Gaewha, and others like them that certainly aren’t). So, they direct their exploitative system toward the Earth itself – the very source of their life and their magic. Oh yeah, magic! Tons of it.

And it’s at this point, that Jemisin draws a line between social justice and environmental justice. It is the same culture of oppression and exploitation that treats people, plants, animals, water, land – all the things on which our lives depend – as mere things to be used. It is a system that cannot see other living beings as worthy of dignity and respect even though they have lives of their own and we all have creaturehood in common. The environmental drama is the sea in which the drama of social justice swims (forgive the sloppy metaphor). Oh, and by the way, the only people who can avoid the Seasons (unavoidable environmental catastrophes that occur about once a generation) are those who are truly in power. The Guardians alone have the luxury to retreat from the Seasons and are therefore unaffected by them. So too, the rich and powerful in our world continue to exploit and strip-mine our planet while believing they will be insulated against the consequences.

This is one of the reasons I love good fantasy. It takes reality in the primary world and makes it strange. And in so doing, it helps us see the primary world more clearly. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin repositions the direction of oppression and exploitation to roggas (those who can do magic), while imagining a world where the social construct of race isn’t a thing and everyone accepts people we would place within the LGBTQ+ community. In this world, people are people, unless they can do magic. Then they’re dangerous and in need of exploitation. A narrative must be created that will convince roggas (orogenes, magic-users) that they are dangerous and must be controlled for the safety of the world. By clearly transposing the direction of fear and hatred from race and sexual identity to magic in her secondary world, Jemisin makes the parallel unmistakable. I can’t read the trilogy and miss the tragic parallel with the primary world. We have done and continue to do to people of other “races” and “sexual orientations” what they did to their orogenes. We too are exploiting the planet so that some can experience short-term gains. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

We can make a better world, one that works for everyone. It won’t be easy, and it will be costly. But a world built on cooperation rather than exploitation is worth it.

A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

Among Others

I’ve had this particular book of Jo Walton’s (along with several others) on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I mean a loooooooong time. I grew interested in Walton’s books after following along with her obsessively detailed rereading of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (the first book of which, The Name of the Wind, is perhaps my favorite book of all time, though I don’t know if it can really unseat The Lord of the Rings from that position). It was brilliant. I found her writing to be insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. I figured that anyone who loved Rothfuss’s books as much—or more—than I did was well worth reading in her own right, and yet I still didn’t make it a priority to start reading any of her books. But after finding a used copy of Among Others at Barter Books a couple months ago it finally moved up my list, and boy am I happy it did.


This book is a joy. As Pat Rothfuss said of it, “This book is gently magical.” I like that. Gently magical. It really is a perfect description. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the narrative and it is something that always remains just beyond the understanding of those humans who attempt it. It works, but its repercussions and real-life effects are not always fully understood.


It is saturated with books, most of them SFF from the late 1970s and earlier, and the most influential book within the text is . . . you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. And considering the role LotR plays within the text it should come as no surprise that the book itself manages to accomplish all the primary aims Tolkien elucidated for the genre of Fairy Story, in which this delightful book squarely resides. You see, while it’s a story of a girl in her early teens living in late 1970s Wales and England and the SFF books she loves and wrestles with, it’s also about a girl who sees and speaks with fairies and is willing to sacrifice everything to perform the magic they ask her to do—and through this magic to save the world. And yet, the whole story is told through journal entries. So the tragic event that shapes the whole narrative, and precedes the first journal entry by several months, isn’t actually explained until very near the end. While this format might turn some off, I found it captivating. Experiencing the wonder of books and the slow unfolding of magic in this girl’s life (in conjunction with all the other things you would expect in the journal of a 15 year-old girl) was like a stroll through unfamiliar country that bears striking similarities to familiar paths and places. It was a joy, which is as it should be. For the genre of Fairy Story should contain within it hints of joy that break in from beyond the walls of the world. It should bring about recovery, escape, and consolation. And it does! It most certainly does!


So, do yourself a favor and go read this one. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for good reason.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him.

No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically.

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . .

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.


I recently finished Jason Gurley’s originally self-published novel Eleanor and was generally unimpressed. I found it predictable and unconvincing, but as I’ve thought more about it I keep coming back to one particular area that left me wanting, and unsurprisingly it is theologically related. Spoilers follow so if you’ve been hoping to pick this one up, proceed with caution or just turn back now.


The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Eleanor’s twin sister Esme (who died in a car accident at the age of six) and her unborn uncle still exist in some sort of Limbo between life and death, waiting—as in most traditional ghost stories—for a wrong to be put right. This wrong turns out to be the suicide of Eleanor’s grandmother and namesake (we’ll call her Eleanor I) while pregnant. Now, the means for setting things right involves rewinding time itself and helping Eleanor I choose to continue living, and this was the element I found most unconvincing. I don’t mind stories that mess with time; they can be quite entertaining. But in Eleanor there’s no explanation for how Esme and Patrick knew that such a thing was possible. They never saw any other being like themselves in this Limbo and so how could they discover it could be done? No one did it before them. There’s no one there to tell them how. There’s no one to demonstrate the principles or even explain the laws so they know how to break or bend them. Maybe I just missed the convincing explanation for how they knew or learned this, but Gurley lost me there.

They explain to Eleanor that if they rewind time the emotional damage her mother, Agnes, has suffered due to the pain of losing one of her daughters will still exist, but it will be without foundation. There will be no diagnosing why she feels the way she does because the accident will never have occurred and she will never have lost a daughter, so there may not be any good means for Agnes to know healing or restoration. When they ask Eleanor if she’s willing to go through with it anyway of course she agrees. Why wouldn’t she? They ask if she wants to improve her family’s life without any real consequence for her except needing to relive her whole life (minus the tragic accident). To be perfectly fair, it’s possible they don’t know how far back time will need to be rewound in order to set things right, so the lack of any real risk for Eleanor could make sense in that light, and this is precisely where the story leaves me wanting.

The stakes simply aren’t high enough because it seems to me that Gurley asks the wrong question. He makes the mistake of assuming Eleanor and Esme are necessary beings rather than contingent ones. They don’t have to exist unlike Eleanor I and Agnes whose narratives will pick up from the tragic moment that so shaped this family. If time is rewound, Agnes will then have her whole life to live, and that life will be radically different because Eleanor I will still be alive, will never have committed suicide, will not have left all the emotional wreckage in her wake, and will then be able to offer a different kind of presence and attention to Agnes. Basically, the story neglects to discuss the butterfly effect and for a story revolving around changing the past to leave this out is a serious shortcoming.

With all the changes that would take place, effectively making Agnes a completely different person in the new timeline, would Agnes still have married Paul? Would they have even met? Even if they did, how likely is it that the exact combination of sperm and egg would combine to form Eleanor and Esme?

So it seems to me the right question, the high stakes question that would have transformed this book’s ending significantly, would have been, “Eleanor, are you willing to risk your very existence for the chance to give your mom a happy life? If you do this, you may never actually come to exist. Is her happiness worth the risk? In light of how she’s blamed you for your sister’s death, hating and shunning you for the past eight years—the most formative years of your childhood—is her healing, health, and happiness worth it?” In short, “Do you love her enough to risk so much?”

Now that is interesting question. That makes her choice to move forward truly courageous. That makes her a self-sacrificial hero like Frodo who saved the Shire but not for himself. Frodo’s was a true act of love and heroism, of sacrifice and generosity. His decision cost something, and its price was high. Turning Eleanor’s choice into one like Frodo’s transforms her character into someone completely different. It turns her into someone who is willing to lay down her life for her enemy, who truly loves one who hates her—it turns her into someone who lives and loves as Jesus did.

City of Blades

This is Bennett’s follow-up to last year’s City of Stairs, a story of espionage and warfare in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. What sets these books apart from so many others is the apocalypse happened due to the death of the Divinities, gods who ruled over reality, shaping and warping it to their desires. City of Blades follows one of its predecessor’s heroes, General Turyin Mulaghesh, on a covert operation into the heart of the Continent’s violent past.

At turns funny, heart-breaking, violent, and suspenseful Bennett has crafted a worthy successor to City of Stairs. The world remains a lived-in, well-realized subcreation with its own believable history and technological progression, that is, in some ways, still reeling from the Battle of Bulikov. Fans will be glad to know that Sigrud graces these pages with all the strength we have come to know him for, but he is given a more nuanced portrayal that fleshes out his character beyond that of the quiet, intelligent thug we know and love. Turyin is foul-mouthed as ever, combining utter competency with an unswerving allegiance to the truth and to those she believes it is her duty to serve. Her back story is both terrible and wonderful as we see how she became the strong, admirable woman she is in these stories.

Though I have never served in the military, and I don’t know that Bennett has either, it seems to me that he has captured the essence of warfare brilliantly—the act of killing as muscle-memory, the detachment necessary to maintain any semblance of sanity, the duty and service that can make death and destruction matter, and the deep belief that there has to be a better way. To continue along this path of slaughter and mayhem is unacceptable in a world that aspires to civility and freedom, but at the same time it is the sad reality of a world where cultures and values are in constant conflict, where it is not just lives that are at stake, but afterlives as well.

I love that this story takes divinity seriously. Bennett has imagined a world where gods are very real and by being gods, their power is nearly unlimited. They seem to be as petty and greedy as the pantheons of ancient mythologies, but with more power. While having human characteristics like the Greek gods did, the Divinities better approximate the realities inherent in the idea of divinity. Unlimited power balanced with the responsibility of freely entered contracts (it reminds me of the Biblical idea of covenant—with some obvious differences of course—in that both parties make an agreement and while humanity can only do its best to abide by the terms the divinity cannot help but abide by them because it is not in the nature of divinity to do otherwise). And that is one of the ways in which Bennett takes divinity seriously. In the Bible, humanity cannot stick to its end of the deal. We are fallen and frail and cannot help but break faith. But God knows this, and rather than cancelling the agreement he takes up both ends to ensure it is kept. If humanity cannot hold fast to the terms, then God will become man and hold fast for them.

There is no One God in the Divine Cities, and the gods there are bear little resemblance to the God of the Bible. But they do bear some. They provide little glimmers of God’s true character hidden behind fiction and invention. And the human characters offer other glimmers from different angles. We can follow those glimmers if we choose, follow them outside the pages of City of Blades, follow them to their source. And when we do we’ll see the face of the God who walked this earth, but not like the Divinities. He walked as a servant, a teacher, a prophet, a sacrifice. He came not to rule or dominate, but to heal and redeem. In him we see the fullness of deity as it really is. And it is beautiful.

The Three-Body Problem

There was much about Liu Cixin’s award winning The Three Body Problem, a hard science fiction (or perhaps we can call it SCIENCE fiction) novel, that was interesting. And I do mean much, but in the interest of brevity, I’m only going to focus on a few pieces, particularly since they integrate well with my specific interests.

I think this novel’s awareness of spiritual things is fascinating, though it paints those spiritual things in scientific colors. The driving force throughout the novel is a minority of the human race who has become convinced that humanity cannot solve its own problems and needs help from outside. This minority is a growing population that is working to pave the way for the alien invasion that will either utterly wipe out humanity or if not that then at least bring their advanced technology (which must make them more morally upright than we are) to set the Earth’s civilizations to right. Liu nails this truth of the human race. We can’t fix our problems on our own. We have ruined the world we live on and done irreparable harm to millions–perhaps billions–of people throughout our history, and so we do need help from the outside. But you want to know something crazy? The help already came. And though it came from the outside, it did so by becoming one of us and taking on all the messiness of a human body, all the dependence of flesh and blood, and redeeming it all.

In Liu’s postscript to the novel he writes,

The appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other. Before then, humanity as a whole will never have had an external counterpart. The appearance of the Other, or mere knowledge of its existence, will impact our civilization in unpredictable ways.

Wow! Liu nails it again. An external Other, one who is distinctly not human, cannot help but change human civilization irrevocably. But where Liu is looking for an alien other to accomplish this encounter, the reality is that this world was fashioned by an Other who has been actively working throughout the ages of human history to accomplish a particular plan. Though the world was made through him and he has made his reality plain for all to see, the world no longer acknowledges his existence, and as one of this Other’s most ardent disciples notes, we have no excuse. And this Other? He’s the very same one who came in from the outside to take on humanity and by dying to put sin and Death to death. And by rising to new life, he brings us with him.

This quest for an external other is, I think, a deep-seated recognition that we were made for encounter with a Divine Other. In the depths of our souls we know we’re not alone in this universe (or in this multiverse if you prefer), but because we’ve taken God out of the equation we’re looking beyond the walls of the world for someone who is, in reality, near enough to hear our quietest whispers. We can continue to look beyond our solar system for an intelligent other–and we may just find it–but we don’t have to. The Other for whom and through whom and to whom we were made is waiting for us to call out to him, even if we cannot muster strength or breath enough to speak. He is ever near. And as another of his disciples once said, our souls are restless til they find their rest in him.

So let us all find rest in the One who is truly other, but also truly one of us.

His name is Jesus.

Skin and An Ember in the Ashes

Okay, so this won’t be a proper book review, but is more of a meditation on two books with similar audiences, similar blurbs, but very different impacts on this particular reader. Both Skin by Ilka Tampke and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir were compared to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire though, I suppose, in all fairness the comparison is actually to the HBO adaptation of his books. The comparison is fitting for both books, but for very different reasons.

For Skin it comes down to sex. Plain and simple. There is a lot of sex in Tampke’s book, and none of it presents sex in a good light. It is animalistic and bestial with nothing setting human sex apart from animal sex–she seems to make the mistake that Tolkien witnessed in the 1930s and described in one of the endnotes of his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’: when it comes to sex in Tampke’s novel, humans are presented not only as animals–which is scientifically correct–but as only animals. There’s nothing good or beautiful about sex in her portrayal. It’s just acting on animal instincts. There’s a lot more about her book that makes me uncomfortable, and it mirrors Martin’s work in those ways too, but it is in the presentation of sex that she follows Martin most closely, and that is the biggest shortcoming of Skin.

If we turn our attention to Tahir’s novel, we get a world that is absolutely brutal. Her main characters suffer some truly horrendous things, and also do some truly horrendous things, and so it is the violence in her world that is most strongly reminiscent of Martin’s Westeros. But what she does with violence is what sets her apart. Like in Martin’s work, no character (except of course the two PoV characters–this is YA fiction after all) is truly safe, and the peril makes the danger real. Tahir’s characters are painted in varying shades of grey, so that even the ‘good guys’ can’t be trusted and the ‘bad guys’ have truly redeeming qualities. With that said, though their morals and personal choices reveal them as decidedly grey, the characters (even the side characters) are drawn with enough color and flavor that their peril and suffering become truly powerful events, not just for the characters who know them but the reader vicariously experiencing all this. There is one scene in particular that hit me like a punch in the kidneys. It left me aching for the characters and the trauma they had experienced, which is just as it should be. Tahir doesn’t shy away from violence, but neither does she revel in it. She shows, so very clearly, that violence has consequences, and those consequences are psychological and spiritual just as much as they are physical. Violence may be the only adequate pathway at times, but that doesn’t mean it should be or can be chosen lightly, and it certainly doesn’t remove the consequences of violent actions. In fact, you might say that it is one, just one, past violent action that is the driving force behind the entire plot, and it’s not the surface conflict that is introduced on page one. This novel introduces a world with depth and history, just like Martin’s, but there is still room for hope–and even indications that the hoped for end will become reality one day.

Comparing fantasy books to A Song of Ice and Fire is all the rage right now, because for the first time in a long time, that comparison may draw in readers who wouldn’t have considered themselves interested in fantasy before picking up Martin’s books or watching HBO’s adaptation. And in both cases, the comparison will not wholly disappoint readers. One of them will appease readers seeking titillation, but the other is reminiscent of the best parts of Martin’s epic, and in those particular ways it may even surpass them.