Snapshot is everything we expect and love from Brandon Sanderson, just about 85% as good—and with a Hugo-award winning novella under his belt, we can’t blame this one on length.
Blame it instead on busyness? Sanderson’s last few novels (Calamity, Bands of Mourning) have felt rushed, perhaps because he’s fit them (and Snapshot) between working on the next volume of his opus The Stormlight Archive. For those of us deeply hooked on that one, it’s probably forgiveable. And regardless, Snapshot still hits all the high notes of Sanderson: unique setting, fun characters, and cool magic that leads to a twist-filled ending. It’s all here it’s just… sorta rushed.
The concept, at least, is awesome. A future police department, through unspecified means, is able to make an exact physical replica of a previous day, complete with autonomous people, deadly bullets, etc. Our main characters go into these Snapshots to gather evidence on crimes already committed, ‘before’ they’re committed, to convict criminals. So we spend the whole story inside a world that looks and feels—but isn’t—real, with the only two ‘real’ people in it shooting who they want, revealing the truth to others, and doing their best to track down criminals using real world clues. But in a world where most anything is possible, the duo’s darker past comes up, and ultimately comes between them as it only could inside a Snapshot…
So it’s a fun concept, and there are some twists, but it all feels unpolished. The characters are basically Wax and Wayne from the latest Mistborn series, a serious and talented lawman foiled by a goofy and carefree sidekick, only Snapshot’s lawman is haunted by a past failure. They uncover a hidden plot, and track down someone exploiting the system, but not in as quite a clever a way as we know Sanderson’s capable of—and the twist endings don’t feel quite as sudden-but-inevitable as they could, and as we know Sanderson’s capable from tighter murder-mystery plots like Shadows of Self.
So is it worth a read? Sure—it’s not expensive (especially given Sanderson’s stance on keeping his works DRM free), and it’s totally entertaining. Just not quite as entertaining as the author’s capable of, so it may not be the best work of his to read first (try The Emperor’s Soul), or the favorite of longtime fans (which, if you haven’t guessed by now, I am). But for everyone else, waiting impatiently for the next Stormlight book? This should tide you over—which, like Arcanum Unbounded, is likely why he put it out.
There’s a reason NK Jemisin won the 2016 Hugo for the first book in this series, The Fifth Season. A lot of reasons, actually. And they just get better in The Obelisk Gate.
Take the magic. A looked-down on (rather than the fantasy-trope of revered) class of gifted people can control the forces of the earth, drawing up heat and causing earthquakes in a setting already known for cataclysmic earthquakes every few thousand years. In The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin takes that magic deeper (boldly naming it ‘magic,’ a word fantasy authors have shied away from lately), and adds another layer onto it, building to some epic moments later in the book.
Take the characters. Jemisin’s background as a psychotherapist shines here. I don’t think I’ve read deeper, more complex, more real and loveable-while-hateable-or-vice-versa characters anywhere in fantasy. They are truly top-notch, and in The Obelisk Gate she pushes her characters deeper in quasi-redeeming the villains of the first book, while making her twin protagonists do some pretty terrible things in the name of what they believe in—and they are all written with such attention to the finer points of the human spirit that you walk away feeling more like you’ve read Dostoevsky than Heinlein.
Okay, not to sing only praises: this feels like a middle book. Which is to say, the plot is as much a recovery from book one and a build to book three as it is a story unto itself. Not to say it isn’t wonderful and engrossing, but it is those things kind of like The Two Towers is: wonderful and engrossing with a stress on middles rather than the tight beginning-middle-end we love from well-told tales.
People say N.K. Jemisin is on the literary end of speculative fiction, but despite unabashedly using second-person for much of the tale, it never comes off as experimentally opaque or different for the sake of being different. The story sucks you in, the plot moves, the magic’s cool—it really just feels like she added a literary depth of character and experimentation with prose to all the things we fantasy readers love about our genre. Not many authors can do that, but Jemisin nails it. At 120,000 words it’s a decent-length book, but I’m not sure it took me two nights to finish (though they were late nights).
Enough praises. This is well worth a read, for pretty much anyone except a Sad Puppy—and it would probably do them some good too. No wonder it’s nominated for a Nebula Award this year. I usually end with some kind of “for fans of this,” or “if you like that” kind of reading recommendation, but no need in this case. Read it.
Sudden or Inevitable, but not Both
There are some fantasy readers who just want swords and sorcery. And there are others who’ve read so much of that, and dwarves and elves and dragons and knights, that we appreciate attempts to do something new, to push the genre in different ways. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities is good at this: deicide in an age of motorized vehicles, spies and military generals versus supernatural enemies, unmagical main characters, Kafka-esque bureaucracy and dry, modern humor all set his books apart from the run of the mill.
In City of Blades, the second of the series, he also tries to get us away from the hero’s journey trope we find so often in fantasy, telling what’s essential a political mystery story (think Hunt for Red October) in a fantasy setting—or post-fantasy, you might call this, as the gods are dead. Only they’re not, really, which would be a cool reveal—except we saw it in the last book, and the mystery in this book depends on kind of forgetting that.
Before we get into it, a few kudos: Bennett is a talented writer, and the prose and pacing draw you through the story regardless of whether the mystery really mystifies. He also has a knack for vibrant, unique characters, and for me they were the best part of the book.
They didn’t manage to overcome its main flaw, though, which is that the driving interest of the story is a whodunit (on a grand political and divine scale), but we’re fed too much information to ever be surprised by the revelations the characters make. Instead of Wash’s ‘sudden but inevitable betrayal,’ the reveals just feel inevitable, which doesn’t make for good mystery reading. Without the curiosity, the struggle to stay just one step ahead of the detective (in this case an unhappily-retired military general), the story loses its drive, and I ended up frustrated sometimes that the characters weren’t seeing what Bennett made so obvious.
On the other end of Wash’s spectrum, there are some sudden but far from inevitable moments that felt, well, deus ex machina—unexplained visions, gods rising from the seas, etc.—that could have been great with a little foreshadowing, but instead feel highly coincidental in terms of the main character gaining needed clues to solve the mystery.
All this to say City of Blades is not for everyone. For long-time fantasy readers looking to break out of the tropes, or lovers of City of Stairs wanting to return to the world with not that many changes, the book will work well. It’s also some great prose—but if you’re looking to be pulled into a surprising plot, an intriguing mystery, or an action-packed page turner, you may want to stick to your guns—er, swords.