This anthology reminded me how much of NK Jemisin’s work I have to catch up on. I read The Inheritance Trilogy and loved it so much that I was scared to pick up any series that wasn’t complete, got distracted and have somehow managed to miss both the Dreamblood and Broken Earth series. I haven’t read The City We Became yet either, although The City Born Great was a tantalising hint at the magic system, so I intend to read the Great Cities series as well, but I might start with the completed series first, because I know how engrossed I get in NK Jemisin’s work, and I don’t want to have to wait). After reading the short stories that precede or exist within the worlds of these series, I know that I have to get my hands on them as soon as possible (The Narcomancer precedes the Dreamblood series, and Stone Hunger is set in the same world as the Broken Earth series).
There are twenty-two stories in this anthology, but I will do my best to share my thoughts on each one. The topics and themes covered in the book are broad, with common themes like diversity, prejudice/racism, climate change, community and loneliness running throughout the anthology, and being explored in various ways. I am a big fan of NK Jemisin’s work (The Inheritance Trilogy reminded me a lot of Liz William’s The Poison Master, to this day one of my favourite sci-fi/fantasy novels), so the chance to read her work in a variety of styles and speculative fiction sub-genres was one I couldn’t pass up.
In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.
The introduction of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month included some touching stories about NK Jemisin’s hopes for her writing, and the challenges she faced getting published as a black woman who wrote speculative fiction. I was interested to learn that Cloud Dragon Skies was her first professionally published work because it seems so polished, and contains a lot of the themes that are present in her later novels. The introduction also explains that some of the short stories are responses to works by other authors, I didn’t realise this (being primarily a novel/series reader), but other readers who read short stories regularly might recognise the responses for what they are.
I really loved the breadth of characters, settings and feelings included in this anthology. For example, The Effluent Engine was an alternate-past historical adventure that I’d love to see expanded into a series, the closest comparison I have is Gail Carriger’s Custard Protocol series , or perhaps The Conductors by Nicole Glover.
Valedictorian on the other hand (another stand-out from the anthology), was set in a dystopian near-future, somewhat similar to Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant, and worked perfectly in the format of a short story. I also liked the way that The Valedictorian seemed to almost flow on from the previous story, The Trojan Girl, which combined classic sci-fi philosophising with found-family in a way that I absolutely loved.
The Storytellers Replacement was an interesting change of pace, but I’m not sure I understood everything I was supposed to from it. I may have to re-read this one, or perhaps the specific mood or experience this story was supposed to tap into was simply one that I haven’t experienced. Walking Awake and Henosis also left me feeling like I’d missed something, although perhaps the slightly less defined story structures are all that caused this. I prefer long series and defined plot structures, so short stories sometimes aren’t ideal because they can’t have an obvious narrative arc without seeming trite, and NK Jemisin’s work doesn’t often beat you over the head with a story’s meaning.
The Evaluators also really proved how much can be done within the format of a short story, and despite it not really including the elements I usually look for in fiction (character development/personal interactions, world-building, exploration of power structures), I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
The Brides of Heaven was a fun read, and I enjoyed the slow build towards its dramatic conclusion. L’Alchemista was another story that I think could be expanded into a fascinating universe, and I loved the respect paid to the art of cooking, rightfully placing it alongside chemistry and its forebear, alchemy. This story reminded me a little of VE Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue , as did Red Dirt Witch, one of my favourite stories from this collection. I really appreciated the reminder of what a difference a person can make.
I didn’t enjoy The Elevator Dancer very much, the world felt too sexist, though the 1984 feeling of it was interesting. Cuisine des Memoires was a wonderful change of pace, and I really loved the message of not waiting for things to become impossible to resolve to become nostalgic for them. I’ve said this at least three times by now, but I would read a full-length work set in this world, or following these characters.
On the Banks of the River Lex was a lovely story, and I really liked the way it ended, and the interesting cast. It was a little like American Gods meets Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and I loved it. Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows and The You Train were both sad, touching, and very well written. Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows reminded me a little of Seanan McGuire’s Newsflesh series, though with a distinctly more science fiction twist. I really enjoyed the way The You Train was told, and it made me appreciate more than ever NK Jemisin’s ability to give each of her characters a distinct voice, Cuisine des Memoires also showcased this marvellously.
Non-Zero Possibilities had an interesting premise, and I did enjoy the eventual reveal of both the changes that had occurred in the world of the story, and the feelings the characters within the story had towards them. I think especially after a year or more of on-and-off lockdowns, many people will be able to relate to the appeal of a simple life with a tangible community that has been slowly becoming rarer and rarer in the modern world.
Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints in the City Beneath Still Waters was incredible, and I loved the world and characters created within it. It reminded me a little of Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine, and a little of Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series, though with NK Jemisin’s incredible writing style.
I know I already mentioned The Narcomancer but as it was one of my favourite stories from this anthology (how many favourites do I have? Irrelevant! The Narcomancer was one of them) I’d feel remiss leaving it as just ‘the prequel to the Dreamblood duology’. I liked the way it subverted expectations, I liked the way it showed respect for typically feminine strengths, I loved the way struggles typically experienced by women were included without removing the agency of the women in the story, and I enjoyed the strong convictions of the main characters. I don’t know if I’ll manage to read The Broken Earth trilogy or the Dreamblood duology first, but right this second, I’m definitely interested in the Dreamblood series, especially if it follows Sister Ginnem at all.
I may as well share my thoughts on Stone Hunger here as well, as I did enjoy it a lot. The Broken Earth series already seemed like one I knew I would enjoy, and the magic system and society of this short story make me even more interested in the trilogy. I liked the way morality wasn’t presented as black or white, and enjoyed the way each character’s backstory informed their actions and judgements.
If it wasn’t clear from the long rambling review, I loved this book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy, science fiction, or would just like to give speculative fiction as a whole a try. The various short stories included in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month cover so much ground that it’s hard to find a single work to compare this anthology to, although I do think there are similarities to the Take Us to a Better Place Stories Anthology (still free here at time of this review), and Gideon Marcus’s Rediscovery: SF by Women anthology, both of which I was fortunate enough to review via Netgalley. This anthology is also a perfect place to begin if you’re interested in NK Jemisin’s work and would like to know which series to start with, or if, like me, you’ve read and enjoyed her work previously, and want to know where to go from here. I also think this anthology would be ideal if you prefer to avoid long-form series, but enjoy reading speculative fiction in small doses that allows you to read a story in one sitting and consider it at your leisure, without the fear of forgetting important details.