This will be a quick review, but I didn’t want to skip it because The Last Wish is one of the most fun things I’ve read in awhile. I love SFF and every time I get back around to reading fantasy, I ask myself why I don’t do it more often.
The Last Wish is one of two short story collections preceding The Witcher Saga written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. I’d never heard of the saga, but its been explained to me that it entered American popular culture with an extremely successful video game. I’m not a gamer but was told I would love the book, and I really did. As I was reading The Last Wish and thinking about how it was both serious and absurdly fun, I thought that it felt sort of like reading Lord of the Rings if it was written by Terry Pratchett. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think helps indicate the tone you can expect from The Last Wish. I also enjoyed that there are elements that are reminiscent of familiar fairy tales—Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc.—but with distinct differences that clearly originate from a separate mythology. And of course, the writing is impeccable. I already have the next book of short stories and The Witcher saga on a shelf waiting for me to read.
There are a lot of layers to this story enabled by the nature of the protagonist. A mechanical girl – an emancipated automaton – whose freedom is “allowed” by a man of wealth and power. Her point of view, the mechanical girl’s, allows for a unique, in many ways un-biased, view of a class-based power struggle. At times the writing is noticeably detached from the events that would typically be the focal point of a comparable narrative: the assassination of a figurehead, mass destruction of the city, lives destroyed, and homes burnt to the ground. But this is the nature of the eyes we’re given to look through. It was an interesting and enjoyable way to experience this narrative, and opened up a lot of opportunities for social commentary. The over-arching issues were that of power and freedom, and Sedia wove these in with issues of gender, race, slavery, and technology (as they are woven in reality). As a result, The Alchemy of Stone is overflowing with perceptive and thoughtful quotes. For example:
“Or perhaps you just think someone who doesn’t want to be your slave is aiming to be your master.”
The end of the story is unusual, which I was more surprised by than I should have been considering how unusual the entire narrative is. Either way, it caught me off guard in its abruptness and lack of satisfying closure. I’ll need more distance before settling on what I think of the ending, but I think I liked it. If nothing else, the conclusion is thought-provoking and just the right amount of troubling. The Alchemy of Stone is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and that is always a good thing.
While I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy immensely, the final installment—The Stone Sky—consumed me. The last three chapters are one of the most exciting and most satisfying conclusions that I’ve ever encountered.
One thing I repeatedly noticed as I read this trilogy is that I was reading faster than my brain could keep up with. There are many sections in the book that get almost technical in their description and explanation of the geological events that are occurring, and I would fly through all of it whether I fully comprehended what I was reading or not. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to read in this way; it’s the way I tend to read a lot of page-turning fiction, but it is definitely a shallower, surface-level method of reading. The point of explaining this is to emphasize that the moment I started the third to last chapter of The Stone Sky, I was suddenly reading slowly and meticulously. I had been racing through this crazy, chaotic, emotional turmoil of a trilogy and then the last 60 pages hit me so hard that I stopped in my tracks and had to slow down and take in every single word. There are many great novels that don’t need their endings or don’t truly have one, and their effectiveness is found in the telling or in the small moments or in the overarching message. The Broken Earth trilogy is made complete by its ending. The ending is the heart of the story, and I wasn’t able to fully love the story until I reached it.
What is so powerful about this trilogy is the ways it illuminates the injustices and greediness of our own reality. It’s been a troubling year to say the least, and The Stone Sky makes abundantly clear that our country and our leaders are going in the wrong direction, making the wrong choices, choosing the wrong priorities. Jemisin shows us how much worse-off the world can become if we continue to follow this path, while also showing us that it is never too late to change course. And this is what the conclusion achieves in a remarkable 60 pages. It’s tragic, gripping, emotional, realistic, but ultimately so full of hope. Heart-wrenchingly full of hope. How often does that happen? How often do we get to be crushed and then uplifted by a realistic conclusion? The Broken Earth Trilogy is a classic and a Must Read.
“To all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.”
This is the dedication provided by Jemisin at the beginning of The Fifth Season. Now pause, and read it again. . . This dedication set the tone for my entire experience reading this novel. Every page, it was there in the back of my mind. The Fifth Season does what all great works of fiction do. By pulling you into a fictional universe in which you are an outsider, it allows for a fresh perspective and forces you to see your own reality more clearly. I dare you to read this book and come out the other side thinking that human beings have the right to abuse and take advantage of the environment the way we do, or thinking that the earth cares whether or not its habitable for any given species.
The Fifth Season is unique, impressive, and gripping. The writing is excellent, the depth of the narrative is astounding (I’m always amazed by world-building and the history and depth to to the world of The Fifth Season is incredible), and the ways race, gender, and human/environment interaction is explored is fascinating and eye-opening. I was engrossed the whole time. I began this book with the intention of only reading a chapter or two, which of course did not end up happening (I should know myself better), and instead finished it 6 hours later without taking a single break. Maybe it’s just that it’s been awhile since I’ve read a good epic fantasy, but I was continually struck by how unique The Fifth Element was in so many ways in a genre that can sometimes suffer from repetitiveness in its themes and story arcs. A lot of it felt new, and I wouldn’t hesitate to attribute that freshness to the author being a black woman. Why should we be surprised that a genre historically dominated by white men can sometimes begin to feel stale?
I plan to read the second book in the trilogy ASAP and will be anxiously awaiting the third. If you’re a lover of fantasy novels, I wouldn’t miss this one for the world.