It seems like every time I review a short story anthology I always start with a disclaimer about how short stories, and by extension, their anthologies, are not really “for me.” In this case I need to say it because How Long ’Til Black Future Month? is one of those rare exceptions where I … I actually liked pretty much every story in here. Not equally, of course. But there were only one or two stories that left me scratching me head and shrugging and saying, “Eh, I didn’t get the one.” The rest were … wow.
I’m doubly surprised, because my foray into N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was less successful. It put me off reading her much-acclaimed Broken Earth books for a long time (I’m still on the fence). To be clear, it’s not a question of her writing skill but just my particular tastes.
What this short story collection does that her novel did not do for me is throw so many amazing ideas in my face. Some short story anthologies have the obvious superstars along with one or two duds and then a handful of mediocre material that’s all right but not really anything special. That’s not the case here. Every short story in this collection is a revelation of storytelling. The one thing in the back of my mind reading this was, “Damn, this is like Ursula K. Le Guin–level good.” Jemisin deserves a long and celebrated career in speculative fiction and grandmaster status, because she has got it.
It’s really difficult to single out any stories for praise. Firstly, because there are a lot of them—you get your money’s worth for this collection, or in my case, my library certainly did. Secondly, because they do blur together, in the best way. Emergent AI consciousnesses downloading into meatspace from a futuristic descendant of the Internet. Singing to cities as they become sentient. Cooks challenged to create impossible meals. Dragons adapting to a new life. Epistolary evidence of a parasitical threat to humankind from contact with another alien species. The personification of Death wandering a post-apocalyptic Earth. The list goes on.
Jemisin’s imagination crystallizes here with breathtaking results. And yes, the stories are full of Black and brown characters and queer characters but regardless of the representation they are also just so good I didn’t want this collection to end and I also kind of did because it was hurting me that they were so good. The last story, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” shouldn’t have worked for me. I didn’t like it at first. But the oddball friendship between Tookie and the lizard just … it’s just good, okay? This whole book is good.
How Long ’Til Black Future Month? has reignited hope that maybe I’ll enjoy some of Jemisin’s other novels. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll only ever enjoy her short stories, ironically, since we share in common a hesitation to embrace the form. That’s okay too.