If you couldn’t tell already, but I’ve been on a bit of an anthology kick this year and there was no way I was going to miss out on N.K. Jemisin’s new collection of short fiction. There are some stories I have read or heard of before and there are even some stories in here that seem to be precursors to her BROKEN EARTH trilogy and others. Yet, what really proves that this anthology is worth your time is just how damn rich and versatile Jemisin’s writing is. (As if her three Hugos left any doubt.)
Each story in this anthology showcases how strong a voice she has and each narrative exemplifies the issues she cares about and how much feeling is wrapped up in each of these. I’ve listed a few of my favorites and really the ones of note here, but really you need to read the whole thing. Ranging from fantasy to literary to science fiction, there is something in this collection that anyone can take away and enjoy. This isn’t to say that every story rang the bell, but the ones that did…really did. But, anyway, let me talk about a few of these now…
The City Born Great – This is one of my favorite pieces of writing of Jemisin’s. This showcases not only her world building, but her ever-present interest in human communities and the importance of cities. And it’s also a ton of fun, I mean how could you not enjoy a city coming to life to pummel a monster from the void?
Red Dirt Witch – What happens when a mother takes the place of her children? You get an emotional piece that narrates the struggles of the first few years of the Civil Rights movement, and a mother’s love, and what a mother will do for her children even if they cannot appreciate it fully. This one is filled with the soft, but simmering rage of injustice that has haunted the United States for centuries, while also incorporating hope and optimism and is what could possibly be the homage to the title of this collection.
Cloud Dragon Skies – Most of humanity now lives in a vast orbital ring around the sun, but occasionally sending teams down to earth to communicate with the “primitives” who chose to stay and keep watch. This short took me by surprise by what direction it took, but it is in some ways the classic repudiation of Mother Nature not putting up with humanity’s tampering any longer. Following a woman who is part of one of the tribes on Earth, we follow her questioning her role in her society, while engaging with these newcomers.
Valedictorian – This story encapsulates the compromises and refusal of humanity to move on or take a stand. When children are continually offered to those beyond the “Firewall” one girl will challenge the status quo by simply existing. This one feels painfully relevant with how we treat children now in our school systems, standardized testing and asking for “exceptionalism.” Little do we realize the damage we are causing, and Jemisin urges us to look at this painful story where the repercussions are terribly real.
The Storyteller’s Replacement – A fabulist story about oppression, greed, and weakness and what happens when those who take power from others find themselves all by themselves. A king seeks to rectify his own impotence by killing a male dragon in order to eat its heart. This leads to a chain of events that will unfold down through a generation and takes beats from Beowulf and other classic tragedies. When the king cannot get exactly what he wants, his compromises ultimately lead to his undoing.
The Narcomancer – Two words: Sleep. Magic.