by N. K. Jemisin
I read Jemisin’s excellent essay of the same name online in 2013 (http://nkjemisin.com/2013/09/how-long-til-black-future-month/), so when I picked up this book I was expecting a collection of essays, but was surprised (and pleased) when it turned out to be a collection of short stories instead. And what a collection it is!
There is Stone Hunger, an exploration of the ideas that would become The Broken Earth trilogy, and The City Born Great, which I believe is a similar exploration of an idea that became The City We Became, the first of Jemisin’s trilogy-in-progress. These are interesting stories on their own, but also give insight into how the author builds from short story to long, intricate novels, a peek behind the curtains that we as readers don’t often get to see.
The emotions of these stories run a wide gamut. There is the fairly grim, but ultimately optimistic opening tale, The Ones Who Stay and Fight, to the bittersweet story of power and race and history told in Red Dirt Witch. Then there is the playful magic realism of L’Alchemista.
One of my favourites was the final, longer story of magic and survival in New Orleans post-Katrina: Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, with its layers of relationships between the survivors in the flooded city, who they once were, who they were in the aftermath, and who they could become.
There are 22 stories, all magical, sometimes veering closer to science fiction, sometimes further into fantasy, occasionally hewing next to realism. But regardless of the genre, all are stories about people and their relationships, whether between a mother and a daughter coming of age (and of responsibility) in Red Dirt Witch, or strangers becoming friends, allies, and more in The Effluent Engine, or striving to be the best even when everyone around tries to hold back in The Valedictorian, or missing someone so badly it becomes addictive in Cuisine des Memoires.
And, ultimately, it is those relationships that make the stories, and the book, so compelling.