Published in November 2018, this collection of short stories from three-time Hugo award winner N.K. Jemisin was something I had been looking forward to since it first starting appearing on lists of upcoming releases early last year. In her introduction to the collection, Jemisin sets the tone by talking a bit about her experiences getting started as writer and “how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman” given the genre’s historical issues with representation. She goes on, however, to express her cautious excitement that enough people in the community are now willing to engage in open and earnest conversations about its flaws and what can be done better going forward. It was in this spirit that the stories in this compilation came to life as a part of Jemisin’s ongoing journey to “finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.”
As for my own experience with book, I absolutely loved it! With only a couple of exceptions, I highly enjoyed everything that these 22 short stories had to offer. They comprised a variety of genres, alternating between magical realism, Lovecraftian horror, medieval fantasy, post-apocalyptic earthes, and space adventures. What each story had in common were excellent characters, settings, and ideas that gave the reader a tantalizing glimpse into each of the worlds created. Jemisin’s ability to give vibrant life to the people, and often even the places, she writes about really drew me in and immersed me into each and every story.
Going into the book my plan was to feature a top five in this space, but by the time I got to the end I found that I had flagged over half of the stories as potential favorites! It was definitely a joyous problem to have, but after some serious deliberation I finally narrowed my list down to the following six, presented in the order they appeared:
The Effluent Engine (2011): Set in the early 1800s, this steampunk-inspired tale tells the story of a Haitian secret agent named Jessline. We meet her in New Orleans where she is trying to recruit to a famed Creole scientist to help the newly independent nation of Haiti develop methane-propelled airships defend its borders. Though she initially fails to get his attention, she may perhaps have found a more receptive partner in his sister.
Brides of Heaven (2007): After an accident in transit, a group of Muslim women find that they are the sole survivors of colony ship sent to a distant planet. While they have been able to establish a secure settlement on their new home, the odds of long-term survival of the colony seem non-existent. That outlook may have been changed, however, after one woman’s unapproved expedition into the wilderness leads her to encounter a seemingly sentient pool of liquid.
Cuisine Des Memoires (2018): Two friends dine in an ultra-exclusive restaurant that purports to be able to recreate any meal from the past, be it of historical or personal significance. When the skeptic among them is finally convinced of the restaurant’s authenticity, he begins a desperate search for answers that may lead him to places best left alone. In addition to making me really hungry, I really liked this story’s warning about living excessively in the past.
The Narcomancer (2007): Set in a roughly medieval African society where mages wield the power of sleep magic, this story follows the quest of a particularly adept Gatherer named Cet who accepts a mission to relieve a nearby settlement beingpreyed upon by a rival magician. Although more than capable of carrying out the task, he finds his focus tested by an alluring woman named Namsut, the scorned secondwife of the village’s deceased leader.
On the Banks of the River Lex (2010): On a post-apocalyptic Earth, humans have died off and their old Gods and ideas are slowly wasting away in the ruins of their abandoned cities. Death, however, has been particularly restless of late and finds that a chance encounter with a family octopi may give his existence a new purpose. Just good, bizarre fun in this one.
Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters (2010): Set in New Orleans, a man named Tookie chooses to stay in his house even as Hurricane Katrina approaches the city. On the eve of the storm he is befriended by a winged lizard who helps our hero navigate the flooded streets and confront a malevolent creature lurking in the depths.