On this day...
5 years ago: Awesome Mac
10 years ago: Vacation

Summary: loved The Fifth Season, disappointed with Obelisk Gate.

When I first read The Fifth Season, I was blown away and immediately started looking forward to the sequel. The sequel didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations at all.

The story takes place on a planet of extreme tectonic and volcanic activity. “The fifth season” of the title is a natural climate-related disaster on a continental or planetary scale. These happen frequently enough (seven within the last 2500 years of recorded history) that there is need for a term like this, and much of civilization revolves around storing and handing down knowledge about how to survive a Season. The book starts at the cusp of a Season:

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

Some people on this planet have magical powers of a special kind (called orogeny) that allow them to shift energy around so as to quell micro-quakes and soothe magma bubbles before they can cause a catastrophe. Untrained, orogenes are immensely dangerous. Trained, they are essential for society’s survival. So the lucky ones are sent to the imperial capital for training; the unlucky ones are lynched and killed.

There are three threads to the story. One continues from where the book took off and describes the beginning of the Season, from the point of view of a “closet” orogene whose neighbours don’t know she is one. The second describes a newly-discovered orogene child’s journey to the capital and her training there. The third shows what life can be like for a fully-trained adult orogene.

I liked this way to tell this story. It’s a great way to explain, for example, why an orogene would behave in a certain way in a certain situation (by telling us about their training) without having to explicitly explain it. And in the end the threads come together naturally and smoothly.

Two things made this book stand out. One was the world, with its tectonic instability and societal focus on surviving it, and its special kind of magic, so suited to this world. The other was the complex emotional tone: poetic, yet bleak and angry, and always torn between hope and hopelessness. Orogenes are immensely powerful, and so needed by the world, yet feared and shunned. The people on this planet have more power over it than we do here, and yet they are more likely to be killed by a disaster caused by the planet.

Obelisk Gate takes up the story right where the first book stopped. I was hoping that the parts I liked best would still be there, that the book would have a similar tone and structure, but it didn’t. And it adds some parts that I frankly quite disliked.

The unique kind of magic turns out to be just a special case or sub-form of more normal, general-purpose magic, which in one turn of the page makes it ordinary instead of unique.

The story-telling in the second book is bog-standard. There are two parallel threads for two main characters. Unlike the first book, the threads’ relationship to each other is both obvious and much weaker: I don’t think they ever actually affect each other, that’s probably left for the third book.

The writing adds detail but loses depth and energy. The first book covered decades; the events in the second book span a year or two – and yet somehow nothing much happens. There is more immediate action, but less substance and tension.

This book also has the abominable habit of letting characters hide essential information for no good reason. Person A knows something, and knows that person B needs this information. Person B likewise knows that the person A knows this thing, and that person B really needs this. And yet A never tells, and B never asks – for no apparent reason at all – until I’m ready to scream at them. Why?! And when they finally decide to talk, we get an info dump – instead of the natural, organic flow that we had the first book.

The first book was among the best I’ve ever read. And while I’m complaining about the second one, it was still better than most – and I am looking forward to reading the third one.

Here’s an interesting review with plenty of spoilers.

Let me quote the back cover blurb for you:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in a constant, overwhelming, never-ending Noise. There is no privacy. There are no secrets.

Then, just one month away from the birthday that will make Todd Hewitt a man, he unexpectedly stumbles on a spot of complete silence. Which is impossible.

(Not only do people hear each other’s thoughts – they also hear those of animals, and some animals even talk. Turns out dogs don’t have anything interesting to say. Mostly their talk revolves around poo and squirrels.)

Todd immediately realizes that the spot of silence is something special that needs to be kept a secret. But – secrets being nearly impossible in Prentisstown – others become suspicious, so he flees the town.

The story then becomes a thriller/adventure/escape story, where Todd of course discovers that not much in the world is the way he believed it was. And, as it is a coming-of-age story, he himself is not like he believed.

The first two thirds of the book I devoured with hardly a break: it’s fast-paced and action-filled and has some interesting ideas. But after a while the author runs out of story, and the plot becomes repetitive. Bad guys chase Todd, Todd flees, Todd is even more tired and hurt. Rinse and repeat. The bad guys are generally over-the-top evil and don’t even seem to have particularly good reasons for chasing him, they just seem to do so because Todd needs someone to fear and flee from.

Todd also keeps struggling with the question of whether or not he can kill someone who is trying to kill him. Which is a deep and worthy question to struggle with, but it never gets any more depth, it just gets asked the same way over and over again, which gets tiresome.

And when, at the very end of the book, Todd’s situation is essentially unchanged, with still the same bad guys to flee from, I knew I had had enough and was not interested in the next book in the series.

No, I have not given up blogging. My computer was out of commission for nearly two weeks, hence the lack of posts. Now that I can access my photos again, I will work on catching up.

We spent today in the countryside together with my father and stepmother.

Today was “Open farms day”. We first visited one farm that didn’t have much to show off apart from a corn field. The next farm was more of a fishery than a farm… They sold local fish in various forms, smoked and chilled and cooked into lunch. They had also invited the local fire and rescue service to entertain the kids (and adults too). We saw and petted water rescue dogs and police cars and a fire truck, and saw a demonstration of rescuing a drowning drunk.

After a very fish-oriented lunch we went bathing in Võrtsjärv. It has a very shallow beach so it’s hard to do any swimming but it suits Adrian well.

We went for a cruise along the river Emajõgi that cuts through Tartu.

Tartu is not like Stockholm with pretty old buildings along the waterside. In central Tartu, the river is flanked by parks with large old trees. Further out there are scruffy old wharfs and then some equally scruffy industrial areas. Cruising past there feels like seeing the backside of Tartu. Even further out there are meadows and hanging willows.

Our cruise passed several cool works of graffiti. Tartu’s politicians obviously don’t share Stockholm city council’s view that all graffiti is vandalism. After the cruise we went for an improvised graffiti walk upriver from the boat harbour to see more.

Continuing on the nostalgic theme, here’s a vintage jug from Tarbeklaas, the Estonian producer of glass jugs. The etched/cut image came in a few variations, but the general look was the same.

I think most Estonian households had one like this, back in the days, and many still survive. It’s heavy and pretty robust. The rental apartment where we stayed last year had the same one.

We drove to the Road Museum, not so much to visit the museum but to see an outdoor theatre performance of Mowgli next to the museum.

Just as we arrived, the skies opened and a torrent of rain poured down. It was raining so hard that I could barely see the road and we crawled the last few hundred metres at below 30 km/hour. It sounded like hail when it hit the car. Then we sat there for some twenty minutes and waited for the rainstorm to pass. Had we stepped out of the car into the rain, we would have been wading through gushing rivers of water deeper than our feet.

Anyway, the rain passed and we got out. By this time it was too late and still too wet for the outdoor museum. We only visited a tiny part of it: a vintage “shop in a bus”. These mobile grocery shops – sometimes in buses, sometimes in the back of trucks – drive around in rural Estonia. I believe they are less common these days. They are definitely more modern these days.

This bus was part shop, part museum. It sold modern snacks and ice cream, but part of it was furnished like a Soviet Estonian grocery shop, complete with wooden bread shelves and an “OUT OF BREAD” sign. Just the way it used to be.

Somewhere someone had also gotten hold of some original vintage food packaging, so in the snacks section there were boxes of bread sticks, looking and feeling just like they did in the 1980s. These were not modern cartons with a vintage print but true original cartons, made of rough beige cardboard where you can see the individual fibers, with a coarse surface and no coating, and of such lousy quality that it starts falling apart as soon as you handle it. This truly brought back memories.

Seeing this “out of bread” sign reminded me of a question that I replied to in some online group, about what Soviet grocery stores were like. This is what I wrote:

Tl;dr: narrow choice, chronic shortages, dull and drab.

Narrow choice: Many foods that I now take for granted just were not available at all, especially food that would have needed to be imported, or processed food. I had never tasted bananas, oranges, yoghurt, pizza, potato chips, breakfast cereal, etc etc.

The food that was available was generally all the same. There was no real competition. There was one brand of flour. Or more like no brand, it was just “flour”. Maybe three or four kinds of cheese. One national maker of candy /sweets in all of Estonia.

The largest grocery store in Tallinn, the capital, was smaller than an average local supermarket is today. There was no need for anything larger because they wouldn’t have anything to put on their shelves.

Chronic shortages: Some goods were not produced in sufficient amounts, so they were not available. For example small “hot dog” sausages, mandarins, and peanuts. You could get them if you knew the right people (grocery store staff) or sometimes if you got really lucky.

Even food that generally was available could run out, including totally normal everyday things. It was perfectly normal to go out to buy, say, bread, butter and sour cream, and only come home with two of the three items because the shop had run out of e.g. butter.

Dull and drab: All packaging was super basic and dull. Flour was sold in brown paper bags with a blue stamp saying “Flour 1st class 1 kg” and that was about it.

So: imagine a small, drab store with sparsely stocked shelves, a meter of brown bags of flour (all identical) and another meter filled with two kinds of pasta. Nothing looks fresh or colourful or appealing in any way.

Any modern supermarket in Western Europe today looks like a fairy tale in comparison. The first time I saw a Western supermarket, I was paralysed. I could not understand how anyone could possibly choose between twenty kinds of cheese. Or how it could be possible to buy apples in the middle of winter.

The weather is still intolerably hot so, even though it’s beautiful outside, we’re looking for indoor activities. Today we visited Tartu’s new “upside down house”. Which is simply a house that is upside down. You can visit it and walk around inside and look at how weird it all feels.

It isn’t exactly 180 degrees upside down but at a slight angle, which makes it feel even more weird.

The concept sounds cool but once inside I didn’t find it particularly impressive. Many of the rooms were rather sparsely furnished and decorated. They’d done the easy part – screwing chairs and tables to the ceiling – but not the extra touches that would have strengthened the illusion and made it feel real, like maybe plants or shower curtains etc.

I don’t know if it was because of that, or because the brain is hard to trick, but I never really got the feeling that I’m in an upside-down house: it simply felt like a house with furniture in the ceiling.

The entry fee was quite steep for the brief time we spent in the house. So even though this looks cool, I didn’t find it worth the money and wouldn’t recommend it.

We barely went outdoors today, but in the afternoon we were nevertheless wilting in the heat. At one point we forced ourselves to go out to buy ice cream to cool us. There is a pleasant, quiet, shady cemetery nearby, right next to the nearest supermarket, and we stopped there to eat our ice creams. The relief was, unfortunately, temporary.

This was the month when Adrian broke his front tooth.

We went book shopping today. This one apparently was unputdownable.