The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
Posted August 1, 2015on:
publishes Aug 4, 2015
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Orbit!)
I’m going to be purposely, cruelly vague in this review for a few reasons. This book is too ambitious for me to risk spoiling anything, and I like playing games with my blog readers. I like the idea that maybe, just maybe after you’ve read The Fifth Season you’ll come back to this review and chuckle at what I was vaguely pointing at.
I tried my best to avoid any spoilers in this review, but I know some of you won’t read much further so that the entire book be a surprise for you. So I better say early on in this review how much I loved The Fifth Season. I loved the world, the characters, most of all I loved how the story unfolded. Like the other Jemisin novels I’ve read, I loved every word, every page, every chapter. If you aren’t reading Jemisin, I have to ask you: why not? And why not start here? For those of you who have read quite a bit of Jemisin, I bet you’ll pick up on what’s going on, or at least have some educated guesses.
To paraphrase the press release, The Fifth Season takes place in a land known as The Stillness, a place in which extinction level events such as earthquakes, plagues,volcanoes, and floods occur every few generations. It’s a miracle anyone survived these events. Some people are born with the ability to control stone and earth. Known as Orogenes, they are seen as dangerous but tameable savages and are taken from their families as children. Trained and educated in the capital, they are manipulated towards working against their own self interests. Noncompliance is met with violence, or worse. And to be a rogue orogene with no training? Dangerous and unheard of! Who would allow such a creature to live in their village? Because of course it is the Orogenes who cause all these horrible events to happen. Everyone knows that.
(Did anyone else think about Three Body Problem while reading The Fifth Season? both books involve Extinction Level Events, yet the populace’s reaction to said events is completely different)
The novel follows three storylines. The major storyline follows Essun, whose entire world has ended in one day. She came home to a dead son. Her murderous husband has taken their daughter. There is a deadly earthquake in her village, and Essun starts walking. She needs to find her daughter. Along the way, she picks up an odd little boy and a secretive woman. Essun’s chapters are all written in 2nd person, which is a very unusual. It’s as if a narrator is talking directly to me and through me, and that I am embodying Essun. It really does feel like that, and it’s the strangest most spine tingling feeling. The second storyline features Damaya, a young girl who is being taken to the capital for her Orogene training. She’s been abused and neglected by her family, so she jumps at any chance to be accepted, to have a safe place to sleep. But she won’t be accepted at her new school, and she won’t be safe. The final storyline follows Syenite, a trained Orogene. She’s being sent with a ten-ring master, Alabaster, to a remote coastal city to complete a contract. Syen has her own private contract with Alabaster that she’s required to complete.
My favorite character was Syenite, and boy oh boy is she fantastic. She’s been manipulated and brainwashed her entire life, ostensibly for her own safety. As she gets more comfortable with Alabaster and what their life becomes, the phrase “if you like that sort of thing” kept popping into my mind. Do you remember when that phrase was attached to Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns? With his attention grabbing fantasy novel, “that sort of thing” was in reference to the grimdark ultra-violence. In The Fifth Season I’m referring to something very, very different, but I believe the same phrase applies. Readers will either really enjoy the scenes I am (purposely) vaguely alluding to, or they’ll skim over them, and move on. Or perhaps they’ll question why the author felt the need to include them at all. Well, I happen to like that sort of thing, so I read and reread these particular scenes, and loved the fact that Jemisin included them and included them because they played an incredibly important part of the plot and character development. These scenes were not there just for the fun of it. Even though they were hella fun to read.
There are short asides scattered throughout the book, that basically tell the reader to look at what’s missing. Look at the negative space. Look where the characters aren’t. It’s actually easier than you might think. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the questions the characters aren’t asking, as if they all have a giant blind spot. It’s as if their culture has blacked out an entire chunk of the world. Outta sight, outta mind, right?
And speaking of what’s missing, and blind spots, let’s talk worldbuilding for a few minutes. We know the Orogenes can control stone and earth (and possibly other elements) to the point where stone is nearly revered. Their traditional law is called Stonelore, and government trained Orogenes name themselves after precious minerals and stones (Alabaster, Feldspar, Syenite, etc). This is a world with very little metal, and what metal there is is considered worthless to the point where “rusting” is practically a swear word. Using “rusting” and variations there of imply something horrible about metal that no one remembers. Feels a little like little kids singing Ring Around the Rosie. I desperately want to know the history of metal vs stone that happened here. And there’s also something that’s bred a culture of isolationism and non-curiousity. No one has any interest in exploring beyond their shores, or asking what is causing these horrible events. People seem very happy to never, ever question the status quo. Orogenes are treated like garbage, derogatory terms are used to their faces, this is a society that’s gone way past fear leading to anger and then to hate. What the hell happened here?
I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that there is a ton happening beneath the surface of The Fifth Season. However, the characters are either too naive (Damaya), in too much denial (Syen) or too traumatized (Essun) to talk about what might really be going on. Whatever it is, it’s so damaging that an entire culture has been built up to keep people from asking questions.
And there’s even more layers. Great characters and fun scenes? Check. Snarky dialog? Yup. Family drama and a grieving mother trying to save the life of her surviving child? Check. A disenfranchised group that’s been taught to hate itself? Yup. A group that uses a derogatory name as a badge, and fucking owns it? That too. “Fantasy” is too small of a word to encompass what’s happening here. The Fifth Season is ambitious, complicated, sprawling, and even claustrophobic at times. But above all that, it’s a compelling story that will keep you turning the pages.