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.

Becky Chambers writes such nice books. Not nice like well-behaved children and polite cocktail parties, but nice like heartfelt hugs and handmade gifts. Nice in a way that makes me feel good about life.

The setup of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet reminds me of Firefly: small, scrappy, tightly-knit crew of a spaceship goes on a journey. Much of the book is spent on getting to know the crew members, their species, and the relationships between them. The details of all the difficulties and dangers they inevitably face are not that important – all focus is on what happens to the people. They live together, struggle with their problems together, and ultimately come out better at the other end of the process.

I like the way Becky Chambers imagines the future. It has futuristic technology and inventions that we don’t, from spaceships to stasis fields. But it’s like today in that things are sometimes made on the cheap, wear out, may need a kick to work, etc.

This actually characterises much of this book’s worldview. It’s homey and down to earth. Technological advances are balanced out by porridge and piles of unsorted bolts.

The plot is a bit thin and the book doesn’t explore any deep or novel ideas, so it’s not a book that will make an enduring mark on the world. But universe and the characters in it are colourful and vividly described, and it’s all simply good fun, so this is a book to read and re-read with genuine pleasure.

A Closed and Common Orbit ups the game a bit. The themes in the first book were very PC: racism/speciesism, “live and let live”. This one explores the question of what it means to be human, and to be family. There are two parallel plot threads. In current time, an AI called Lovey (short for Lovelace) is put into a human body and tries to adapt and learn, and fit in with the humans she lives with. In past time, a girl escapes from a slave planet with the help of another AI, who is more of a parent to her than any human has ever been.

Superficially there is not much the two lives have in common. But both characters start from a confined, deprived background (in the case of Lovey, all she has ever experienced is the inside of one spaceship) and suddenly burst into freedom. Both now have to make sense of a whole wide confusing universe. Both have to learn what it means to be human and have relationships with other humans – and how to be free and set their own direction in life. (Less profoundly but very enjoyably, both revel in previously unknown pleasurable sensations of touch, smell and taste.)

Fundamentally this book, like the first one, is a warm, intimate story about friendship and love. I hope Becky Chambers goes on to write many more in the same vein.

1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries. Booker prize winner, rave reviews everywhere, and I just gave up when I was about halfway. What good is a clever, intricate structure and skilfully imitated Victorian plot and Victorian style, when I just cannot bring myself to care about any of the characters or what happens to them? Despite all the detailed descriptions, none of it felt real. Too much cleverness and too many characters for my taste. Had I decided to continue, I would have needed to go through the first half again and take notes. The final straw for me were the grating introductions of each character’s character (so to say), possibly intended to be incisive, but to me they just made the narrator come across as conceited and supercilious.

2. Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests. Every part of the plot was obvious and unsurprising, and it all felt plodding and boring. I found myself thinking that maybe I could skip a few pages without really losing out on much. While I don’t need my books to have likeable characters, I do expect them to be interesting in some way. When rather boring people do rather boring things and spend a lot of time having rather boring thoughts, the result is not very captivating.

3. Maja Lunde, The History of Bees. Three intertwined stories about beekeeping – one from the mid-1800s about a wannabe scientist who invents a new kind of beehive, one from around the current time about colony collapse, and one from a future where there are no bees and fruit trees are pollinated by hand by endless ranks of manual labourer. None of the individual stories is particularly strong, and since there isn’t much to hold the stories together – other than the shared themes of bees and relationships between parents and children – they also don’t make a strong whole. There is no shared idea or insight. The English translation is kind of clunky in places – several times I found myself jarred by some clumsy phrase, thinking that I could have done better.

The god Apollo chases a nymph. Rather than submit to his amorous advances, she prays to Athene to be turned into a tree, and her wish is granted. Apollo is baffled. After a discussion with Athene, trying to understand what happened, he decides to try living as a mortal for a while, to understand this whole thing about “volition” and the “equal significance” of people.

At the same time, Athene is setting up a city where she and a bunch of people can experiment with living after the principles of Plato’s Republic, so that’s where Apollo-as-mortal goes as well. The city is populated – following Plato’s instructions – with elders and children. For elders, Athene brings people from various points throughout history who have read Republic and prayed to Athene to be taken there. For children, they purchase slaves. And then follows the experiment of actually putting Plato’s ideas about a Just City into practice.

I haven’t read anything of Plato, but neither have the children of the Just City, so it’s not a prerequisite in any way. We learn the principles along with them.

The results are mixed, and not surprisingly, in the end it turns out that some ideas look good on paper but when you get into the nitty-gritty details, life is not that simple.

This may sound altogether dry and philosophical, but it isn’t. There is plenty of interesting detail about everyday life in the growing, developing city, as well as actual story lines, interesting characters, relationships between them etc. Foremost among them is Simmea, one of the children brought to the city to grow up there. We see her traumatic arrival, her bright-eyed earnest efforts to become her best self, but also her doubts about some aspects of life in the city.

For some reason, Athene doesn’t bring Plato himself to the city, but she does bring Sokrates, after a while. He does what he always does in books and starts asking difficult questions, throwing everything into disarray. What seemed so clear and righteous and just now becomes uncertain, unpredictable and questionable.

This was a fascinating read. Thought-provoking, unlike anything else, but also very readable and interesting as a work of fiction, not at all heavy or dry as you might expect a philosophical thought experiment to be.

If you’re hesitating, here are two reviews that I liked, from The Globe and Mail and Russ Walton.

Adrian reading “Captain Underpants”. The book has butt jokes, people running around in their underpants, and a time machine made out of a portaloo. Absolutely perfect for a seven-year-old.

A rare thing happened: I read a Swedish book that I really liked. That is worth a book review post, even though most of you reading this probably don’t care about Swedish books.

The title, “Ordbrodösen”, means “word embroiderer”. Females from a special family in rural Sweden have the power to control and influence others using their written words. Girls get their power when they turn eighteen. Alba, a girl from the magical family, turns eighteen and goes through her induction ceremony, but for some reason her power doesn’t work.

As she tries to understand what is going on, dark secrets start leaking out from previously hidden corners of the family history. And before you know it, Alba is racing to find a lost/hidden relative, before other people find him and, ehm, get rid of him.

I like the magic in this book, because it is so low-key and un-fantastical. It has some interesting limitations and implications. And in a way it is like a weird kind of programming.

The tone of the book is also everyday and un-fantastical, which makes the story feel quite normal and believable. There is a lot of detail that makes each scene feel real and almost palpable, as if I was there.

The mystery aspect of the story is well handled: we get hints and clues at an appropriate pace, there is a thrilling final “battle” and the secrets ultimately revealed are suitably astonishing.

Like many fantasy books I read and like, this one is probably aimed at young adults. On the plus side, this means it is relatively brief (as opposed to the thirteen-book mammoth series that some more grown-up fantasy works grow into). On the minus side, it feels a bit lightweight in a way I cannot exactly define.

“The Night Circus” is the story of two young magicians, Marco and Celia, and their magical contest. The contest has no apparent end and its goals and rules are unclear. The contestants are both bound to it for life: they cannot give up, nor apparently win or lose. They just keep competing. The tragedy of it all only dawns on us slowly.

The arena for the contest is the circus from the book’s title. It has mostly non-magic performers, but Celia and Marco start adding magical elements to it. Not just the obvious illusionist’s show that is truly magical, but all sorts of other acts that are magical in the sense of being weird and wonderful. A garden of ice; a carousel where the animals are partly alive; a hall of mirrors where the reflections are not quite the mirror image of that which they reflect.

Marco’s and Celia’s powers complement each other. They build the circus together, while still always being aware that they are competing.

As a reader, you can see the love affair between the two from miles away, but they themselves don’t, and it takes years for them to cover those miles. (What a romantic, sentimental concept of love, to have the lovers kept apart and longing forever.)

The circus is beautiful and mysterious, and makes you wish you could live in that world only so I could visit it. In the book, the circus gains fans whose whole life revolves around visits to the travelling circus. But I never feel that I can really picture it – it remains just a little bit vague, like a dream.

The world is apparently flawless, full of lovable, charming characters. They have parties with excellent food; they perform in beautiful circus acts. Magic appears to always succeed. There are no failures and no mistakes. Nobody is ever in a bad mood, everyone at the circus always gets along. All is dreamlike perfection.

We experience all of this through short glimpses and the occasional set piece. The story jumps back and forth in time, which is occasionally confusing, but in keeping with the dreaminess of it all, the slight confusion didn’t bother me much because I found that the exact order of events mostly didn’t matter much.

It takes a patient reader to savour the wonders of the circus and the book. The pacing is slow all the way, which goes with the dreaminess but has its downsides. While I enjoyed every page I read, I never got that feeling that I can’t put the book down and just have to read one more page, so it took me a while to finish. It could have done with more variation in tone and pace.

Only at the very end does the intricate magical balancing act of the circus start to teeter. I was almost hoping for it to come crashing down in fire and flames, but it doesn’t. Ending such a story is hard, but Morgenstern manages it well – although again she doesn’t quite succeed in getting the pacing right, making it dreamy instead of dramatic.

I got this book as a Christmas gift from Ingrid. It was a great choice. I do wonder how she picked it.

By chance, I happened to read these three books consecutively. They turned out to explore similar themes but from quite different angles, and they fit together like three parts of a… something. What’s the three-part equivalent of “hand in glove”? Two legs in a pair of trousers, perhaps?

Touch by Clare North
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, also by Clare North
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

In Touch, a man called Kepler can transfer himself into the body of anyone he touches, pushing to the background the person who used to inhabit that body. He is not alone in having this power – there are others, but they are few. This power can of course be used in all manners of ways, but one obvious benefit is that he can effectively live forever, as long as he can find someone to touch before he dies. That is, in fact, how he discovers his power – he is killed, and instinctively jumps from his body, before it dies, into the killer’s.

The cover of the book sells it as a thriller, and it is. One day our man finds himself hunted. People are trying to kill him, people who know what he is and how he moves from body to body, and he needs to find out who and why.

But more interesting to me than the thriller plot was the exploration of this power, and what life choices it gives to its wielders. “Ghosts” vary as much as humans in general and use their abilities in very different ways. But like for normal humans, what most of them really want is to be loved.

It is a power, but it has its cost – the “ghosts” can never live a life that is fully their own. They are parasites. In order to live, they must push aside someone else, exploit someone’s body, take over their life – their family, friends, identity… With some, the exchange is conscious and willing. In other cases, a ghost steals decades of an unwitting host’s life and only leaves them when they are near death – and the original inhabitant of the body awakes in panicked pain and confusion.

I really liked Claire North’s writing style. It flows incredibly smoothly, fast-paced without ever feeling speedy, poetic despite its thriller plot. There is something touching and sad about its tone. Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, when it comes with this kind of rootlessness.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is, in one reviewer’s words, “Life After Life done right”. While I don’t agree at all, I can see why they would say that.

Life After Life is about reliving a life, over and over – surviving an accident that killed you last time – but without ever truly remembering the previous lives. The most that you might get is a sense of foreboding when that accident nears, or a vague sense of familiarity, inexplicably feeling that you know what is about to happen.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is that, but with full memory and consciousness. Having lived and died once, Harry August is born again and lives the same life again. Unfortunately, unprepared for this experience as he is, the disorientation and horror soon drive him mad and he takes his own life. But he adapts, and while the next lives are far from happy, at least he survives into old age.

But, just as with Touch, Clare North adds a thriller angle. At the very end of one of his lives, Harry August is visited by a young girl who gives him a message to pass on to the Cronus Club, a fraternity of time travellers like him. (Handing a message to an old person on their deathbed, so that their reborn young self can pass it on to others, is the established way of communication backwards in time. This particular message has already travelled thousands of years.) She tells him that the world is ending. And with each cycle, the end is coming closer.

In parallel with the thrilling brain-twisting plot is unfolding (with extra brain-twistyness since it is presented non-linearly) the book (like Touch) explores the implications of this “power”, what it means for the person and what it does to them. Since Harry keeps his memories, he is not the same man the next time around – he learns, he makes different choices, sees the world differently, has different priorities. Where Life After Life truly feels like a never-ending cycle, Harry August’s many lives are more like a spiral: each cycle is the same, but different.

After a while, it all becomes “same old, same old” for Harry. When you’ve travelled all the places you want to travel, learned all the skills you want to learn, studied all the subjects you want to study, and every relationship is burdened by your unspeakable secret (as well as your unequal ages), endless life becomes dull.

One might think that as an immortal, there is endless opportunity to experiment to spice life up: just kill Hitler and see what happens! or introduce future technology 50 years early! or try something else to kick life into a new groove. But any radical changes to the timeline would lead to future immortals not being born, and causing this to happen is the gravest possible sin among immortals. (This ideology of non-change underpins the plot, by the way: one immortal decides that he wants more from life, not just more of it.)

I have two quibbles with this book. Parts of it are rather slow. And so is Harry as a character and narrator – a bit dull and bland. The narrator in Touch feels a touch more sensitive and mature. It does not surprise me that Claire North wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before Touch.

Still, an excellent book – interesting, intellectually challenging, well written.

(Here’s an interesting, longer review that tells you much more of the plot.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell also has immortals, akin to those in Touch in that they live linearly rather than cyclically, but also akin Harry August in that they are reborn into a new body instead of transmigrating as and when they wish.

They are the centrepiece of the book, but for the most part they go almost unnoticed. Instead we follow the lives of a bunch of ordinary people. Holly Sykes is the first one we meet. The others are tangentially linked to Holly, and the stories all keep coming back to her.

After 400 pages of detail-rich realism and ordinary people leading ordinary lives (with just tiny hints of something strange going on in the background), suddenly Mitchell shifts gears and now we’re fantasy land. Holly gets drawn into a centuries-old war between a “good” bunch of immortals who get their immortality more or less naturally, and a “bad” bunch who consume other people’s lifespans, vampire-like. Magical duels and travelling through weird dimensions into impossible places and mysterious substances and made-up jargon and an Ultimate Battle to End All Battles and that sort of stuff. Mitchell is, frankly, not good at this kind fantasy – it’s like something out of a Dan Brown book. When we see the mystery up close, it loses much of its appeal and becomes almost silly.

… aaand then we’re done with the ultimate battle and back in the realm of realism again, but decades into our future, so it’s hard to tell how realistic this part of the story actually is.

It’s all very well written, brilliantly alive. I can open the book at any page and be sucked right in. But when I reach the end of the book, I’m unsure what the purpose was.

This book wasn’t Holly’s story – we know some of what happens in her life, but not enough actually happens to make it worth a book. It definitely wasn’t about the other people, because even less happens to them. (I could have skipped the whole of the part about the disillusioned writer and not missed anything.) And given how much of the time the immortals spend in the background (plus their ultimate battle doesn’t even resolve their war) it doesn’t seem to be about them either. I kept waiting for some kind of finale, some conclusion, and there was none.

I loved much of it while I was reading it but I feel no strong need to read it again.

Eric is reading Harry Potter for Ingrid every other night. (The other nights, I read Supilinna salaselts.) I also listen because Harry Potter is fun, even in Swedish. Several evenings now we’ve heard about about quidditch games.

[I note that my text editor recognizes quidditch as a valid English-language word. Unlike recognizes, which it thinks should be spelled with an S instead of a Z.]

The programmer in me cannot help but wonder about the magic controlling the quidditch balls. I mean, since the balls fly around on their own, they must have some kind of instructions. If you want to control something by magic, you must know precisely what you want it to do.

How could you instruct something to behave the way the Golden Snitch behaves in the books, for example? “Fly around, fast and unpredictably, but not too fast. And keep yourself hidden, but not too hidden – no burrowing into the ground or someone’s pocket!”