Grimdark fantasy SF that makes the works of Abercrombie and Morgan seem like happy optimistic children’s fiction.

This is the second book in The Broken Earth series and it picks up right after the first book, The Fifth Season, ends. The Earth is still broken. Everyone is still going to die. And things continue to get worse.

The two main characters, Essun and Nassun, mother and daughter, both gifted with powers that make them an outcasts and slaves. They’ve been separated by circumstances and their struggles form the core of the book.

Everyone is so damaged. It’s heartbreaking. Nassun, a young girl, is warped and broken by seeing her father standing over the corpse of her younger brother. He was killed by their father when the father realized that his son had the powers to shape rocks. Nassun, in an effort to survive, travels with her father, manipulating him, developing her powers. Trying to stay alive. Expecting to die. Even when she finds sanctuary among others like herself, even when she becomes powerful in her abilities to shape forces both geological and genetic, she still knows that she will die soon. She knows that at any moment she will be killed. And all around her, the world ends.

Essun, her mother, is similarly damaged by her various pasts. She’s found refuge, temporary refuge, in an underground town. It seems nice and unbelievably, it’s run by a woman who is a member of the same slave caste as she it. But Essun knows that she can’t trust any one there, she knows that she can’t trust the situation to remain safe and peaceful. She knows that the pogrom against her and her kind is inevitable. Her past has taught her that any refuge is temporary and to be prepared for the worst. Happiness is a lie both malign and blind for Essun.

She similarly distrusts those who come to her and tell her that she can save the world. All she has to do is trust them and develop her powers. All she has to do is believe them. And she has no trust left.

Saving the world. It brings up a question I have. Why do the writers of SF fantasy hate the Moon? Richard Morgan in his Dark series turns the Moon into an orbital ring. In this series, Jemisin has the moon flung away and forgotten. What’s up with the lunar hate, guys? Sheesh.

Saving the world also brings up one minor problem I have with the book. In the course of the story, it’s revealed that Essun might have the power to save the world, to stop, even reverse the end of the world. Reading this, it struck me as cliche. It’s just a variant on the hidden scullery boy who can defeat the Evil Dark Lord. In any other fantasy series, I would have just accepted this and moved on. But Jemisin is such a good author that this plot element was especially jarring. It’s the only fly in the ointment. And I trust her that she’ll come up with some interesting twist on the concept.

I grew up in the 80s, so I grew up knowing, in my bones, that the world was going to end in a nuclear war. Which means I read a metric fuck-ton of post-apocalypse fiction. The stuff was everywhere in those days: Horseclans, the Survivalist, Deathlands, that Dean Ing series, Damnation Alley, Swan’s Song, and there are lots more that I’m forgetting. The Obelisk Gate puts them all in the shade, shows them up for the happy clappy optimistic lies that they were. In The Obelisk Gate, for example, cannibalism is inevitable and rationally discussed.

This is a sad book, filled with people just trying to survive the end of the world, just trying to survive for just a little longer. No heroes (and in those other post-apocalypse books, there were always heroes – usually white guys, of course), just people trying to survive amid unremitting horror as the planet dies and other people try to kill them.

Anyway. This is a fantastic book. Very well written. Incredibly grim. I am looking forward to the rest of the books in the series.


This book is pure pulp (this is a compliment, one of my highest). Just look at these words.

The Path Incarnadine, a haemovore death cult that single handedly defended the Carfax Hive on the cardinal world of Aspiratyne from the predations of the dark eldar Fell Witch and her World-Scourgers.

Yes, it’s goofy. But they take place in a goofy world. Because, after all, Atlas Infernal is a Warhammer 40,000 novel, a novel that takes place in a grim future where there is only war. Where the forces of the undying God-Emperor fight ceasely against the forces of Ruinous Chaos. Where fearless, and more or less insane, Inquisitors enforce the Imperial theology against monsters such as

Gallkor-Teth the Decimate

Inquisitor Bronislaw Czevak is one such member of the Inquisition. Very old and very fierce in his pursuit of forbidden knowledge that he needs to fight the Chaos Lord Ahzek Ahriman. Forbidden knowledge that brings him perilously close to the edge of heresy and damnation. Forbidden knowledge that leads him to the Eldar (space elves. there are also space orks. like I said, pure pulp.) and their Black Library.

the Palatyne Sceptoclasm

In his quest, he’s aided by Interrogator Raimus Klute, a TechnoMarine, a blind warp-seer with her pet demon (another cute bit of the Warhammer 40K universe is that in order for a spaceship to travel faster than light, it has to go through Hell, quite literally. Warp space is a hell dimension and only a spaceship’s shields keep it from being destroyed by demons every time it goes FTL), and a group of Savlar Chem-Dogs, drugged out gun bunnies from a penal battalion.

the Flesh Mines of Marriar

It’s a quest story, in its bones. Czevak is searching for pieces of the Demon Lord Mammoshad before Ahriman finds them all, puts them together, and raises the demon lord to fight for Chaos. The group, on the spaceship Malescaythe, travel from planet to planet. They visit a hive city that’s fallen to the forces of Chaos and whose inhabitants have become feral cannibals. There’s an extensive shoot out as they’re discovered raiding the treasure vaults of a Space Marine chapter. Remember, this is still a Warhammer novel and so there’s a lot of shooty-shooty.

Umbragg of the Brazen Flesh and the Rage Lords of Taurm

There are several different kinds of Warhammer 40K novels. Most of them involve the very violent adventures of the Space Marines (genetically engineered giant humans with two hearts and really big armor. Only male Space Marines. The roots of Warhammer 40K lie in the 70s and the gender assumptions of that time and of the gaming industry of that time still are a part of this fictional universe.). Other novels are about various units of the Imperial Guards army, humans fighting in the war that never ends on the ground or in space. The ones that I like the most are those that involve the Inquisition. In those, especially the ones written by Dan Abnett about the Inquisitors Eisenhorn and Ravenor, the reader gets a more human view of Imperial civil society, a street level view of how regular people live, rather than huge ultra-violence of the Space Marines or the never ending battlefields and military life of the Guards.

the sinister shapes of a grimoire-diabolicus of True Names, a hexagrammic stamphammer, a stasis-casked astramoebic warp infestation

This is one of my favorite Warhammer novels. I really like the Gaunt’s Ghosts series as well as the Eisenhorn and Ravenor books, but the sheer baroque pulpiness that Rob Sanders has achieved in Atlas Infernal is very appealing. In the vast number of Warhammer novels, this one stands out.

The Seven Star Hegemony, the Vilo Rouge Twist Cleansings and the Decromunda Hive Holocaust


Carve The Sky is a 1991 science fiction novel by Alexander Jablokov starring Anton Lindgren (Seneschal to George Harvey Westerkamp, Lord Monboddo, Interrogator of Boston, Colonel Division of External Security {Westerkamp wears a lot of hats}) and Vanessa Karageorge (Ordinary Fellow of the Academia Sapientae). Hat tip to Movies With Mikey.

The plot of the novel revolves around the search for a famous and skilled sculptor who’s supposed to have been dead for a couple of years. A new piece by him has appeared and it contains a very special extra-terrestrial mineral. A mineral that might contain the secret to space travel. The Union of Nations wants the mineral. The Technic Alliance of the outer planets and satellites wants it. And nobody knows what the Academia Sapientae wants, but they’re involved. The threat of the Second Solar War looms. It’s a Macguffin hunt. It’s a tour novel.

But what makes this novel special is that it’s so wonderfully decadent, filled with delightful touches. Because of weapons satellites left over from the Orthodox Empire, there’s no high speed travel on Earth. No jets or anything like that. All long distance travel is done by zeppelin and train. A slow decadent pace for a book that goes from Boston to the Pamir Mountains via an art gallery in Paris and a monastery in Istanbul and then to the Asteroid Belt via a stop on the moon for more art and a boar hunt.

It’s on the Moon, in the city of Rutherford which rests in the Crater Clavius, where Jablokov sets the scene that truly informs the reader that this isn’t a usual SF novel. The scene is a wild animal hunt. On the Moon. A regular event where the Justice of Clavius, a member of the nobility, releases a flood of wild animals in the streets and forests that stretch below the surface of the Moon. Boar, deer, gazelles, pronghorn antelopes. All of them being hunted with spears and bows by the citizens. On the Moon.

Jablokov does something that I greatly admire on the level of technique. Many of the chapters start with extracts from books, reports, catalogues, tourist guides. The extracts give a little background to the chapter: lunar culture, Anatolian politics, cult history, best place to get noodles in the Asteroid Belt. This is a very artful way to avoid info-dumps. So artful, that I’m going to steal it for my next book.

Jablokov has written several other very good SF novels. River of Dust takes place in the same universe as Carve The Sky, some of the same characters but younger. Same flavor. Nimbus is a near future SF novel informed by the chaos of the post-Soviet 90s. There’s a very cute bit in Nimbus of jazz playing LARPers who pretend to be living in a world where rock and roll never happened. It’s a typically Jablokovian grace note. He’s a very good writer who, as far as I can tell, fell victim to the collapse of the mid-list. And we readers are the poorer for it.

I highly recommend Carve The Sky. A very good SF novel written with imagination and verve.

Next week… Well, next week, I give in and review a Warhammer 40K novel. That’s right, next week is all shooty-shooty stabby-stabby all the time.



Yoon Ha Lee has made a name for himself with such short stories as Snakes  and Falcon-And-Sparrows and The Knight of Chains, The Deuce of Swords. Ninefox Gambit is his first novel.

It’s military SF, which (stating my biases upfront) was a bit disappointing, since the genre is inherently conservative one within the infinite possibilities of science fiction.

The Hexarchate (which used to be the Heptarchate before the Liozh were declared heretics and destroyed) is a standard authoritarian interstellar government that keeps its power through the enforcement of calendrical and religious protocols. All conquered peoples are forced to follow the same date and time systems. Control at the level of basic societal assumptions.

The Hex in the Hexarchate refers to the castes in the system: Kel, Shuos, Nihrai, Rahal, Andan, and the last one that starts with a V (Vordai? Sorry, bad note taking while reading). The lead character in the book is Captain Kel Cheris. She’s a genius at math and has been very successful in the ranks of the Kel, the Hexarchate’s military caste. Her success has brought her to the attention of the leaders of the Hexarchate who are dealing with an outbreak of heresy that has taken over the Fortress of Scattered Needles. When asked what weapon she will need to destroy the heretics and take the Fortress, she answers that she needs the insane traitor General Shuos Jedao. Jedao has been on ice for the last 400 years, too traitorous and insane to keep alive, too useful to kill. He never lost a battle, you see. The Hexarchate responds with a long ooooookayyyyy… and gives Cheris what she wants.

Cheris goes into battle with Jedao welded to her shadow, offering her advice and strategy in her mind. Which is a problem for Cheris when she realizes that Jedao is playing a very long game. A game of vengeance. An extremely long gambit.  

Lee uses his imagination best in this novel when it comes to weapon design. Amputation guns. Threshold winnowers. Carrion bombs which leave behind nothing but shards of personality traits and memories that can be ingested. Cannons both erasure and dire. Infantry formations that bring on hive mind states and also act as mathematical armor for the entire formation. Military SF, yes, but not your standard shooty-shooty (yes, Warhammer 40K, I’m looking at you).

There’s a lot of talking in this novel. But Lee is a skilled writer and is able to keep the scenes tension filled and moving along. It’s never a boring novel.

One of the weakness of the book is that there isn’t a great sense of place. A variety of command centers and hallways, it seemed.

Reminded me a lot of Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, down to gloves as civilizational signifier and AIs that are secretly helpful to those who they like.

It’s almost like a fantasy novel (cue: any sufficiently advanced tech = magic). Sword and sorcery overlay of the science fiction elements. This came to mind when I read the place names: Fortress of the Scattered Needles, the Entangled March, the Citadel of Eyes.

I’m not saying Ninefox Gambit is a bad novel. It’s imaginative. Read it if you can get it from a library or torrent. I’m going to read the next one in the series. I was just hoping for the pure quill weirdness that Lee showed in his short stories.
Next Review: Haints Stay by Colin Winnette