c.e. taillefer

August 22, 2015

Review: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season


This one may have broke me.

I don’t write very many book reviews, for someone who reads so much.  My kindle is littered with dozens of samples, and even more samples-that-became-purchases in the last year alone.  In the past twelve months, I estimate I read about 20 new books, and probably re-read a dozen more.  And yet my last book reviewed was (it’s embarrassing how long it took me to search this out): World of Shell and Bone, in 2013. 

I’ve read some really great books in the past year, like Uprooted by Naomi Novik, of Temeraire fame. Seraphina and its sequel by Rachel Hartman.  Some really clever fairy tale retellings by T.K. Kingfisher.  I’ve read some books I wasn’t enthralled by, despite expecting to love it, like Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  And I’ve read some truly mediocre stuff, like Virgina Boecker’s The Witch Hunter. I didn’t review any of them beyond perhaps a star rating, primarily because I was prompted to by Mother Amazon at the end of reading.

When I reviewed WOSAB in 2013, I did it because I was possessed with the need to dissect the failings of a post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA novel – probably borne out of a desire to avoid making any of those same mistakes in my own writing.  Or to warn people that a pretty cover can hide a multitude of sins.  I want to make explicit that is not the case here. The Fifth Season was a good read, with solid characters and world-building. Given my lukewarm reactions to both the Inheritance trilogy and the Dreamblood duology, I was far more invested in this book.

No explicit spoilers past the cut, but some minor ones.

The Fifth Season takes place in a world called The Stillness, plagued by multiple seismic apocalypses through the course of its long history.  The historical world-building is clever, given in little bits of lore, or through the evocatively-named seasons themselves, such as the Season of Teeth, or the Boiling Season.  Given that the book’s publication date was pushed back over a year from August 2014 to August 2015, I doubt that my discovery of this New Yorker article on the Cascadia subduction zone a week prior to the release of Jemisin’s book was intentional. But it certainly covers the cataclysmic scope of her book quite well, and also the methods of passing on disaster preparedness, both written (as in the documented earthquakes and tsunamis of Japan’s history) and oral (the corresponding oral tradition of the same massive seismic event on the other side of the ocean, in the Pacific Northwest).

People who can tap into the thermal power of the earth, and use it, for good or ill, are called orogenes.  In a world where the earth is your mortal enemy, people with power over it must be also, and so orogenes are raised in a compound known as the Fulcrum, protected by Guardians.  If you’ve ever played the Dragon Age series, and are thinking about the Mage Circles and Templars, that could be one of the inspirations at work here.  If you think that the Guardians are as likely to abuse their power over their charges as Templars were of Mages, then you’re definitely on the right track.

The story follows three orogenes, through different roles in the strata of Stillness society: Damaya, a young orogene sent to the Fulcrum under the care of her new Guardian, to learn how to control her power and use it to quell the constant shakes and groans of the restless earth; Syenite, an orogene of middling strength, sent to perform a mundane task for the Fulcrum as a guise for her real assignment – breed a son or daughter with the orogene they’re sending with her; and Essun, an orogene in hiding, whose son was killed, and her daughter kidnapped, when their father discovers they have the earth-breaking power too.

This is how stories begin.  The characters, often through no fault of their own, are struggling with dire circumstances, that they seek to overcome.  It gets worse.  I mean, it always gets worse, that’s how stories go.  That’s what makes their triumph sweeter.  But no, really, it gets worse.  I’ve spilled a lot of ink on A Song of Ice and Fire over the years, a series I hate and love in equal measure and I’m not sure which is which sometimes.  I don’t think even they have being as grindingly despairing in their worst moments that The Fifth Season is in some of its best.  There must have been some levity in the book somewhere, but I can’t remember any.

There’s the mundane horrors, as they were – unlike World of Shell and Bone, Jemisin doesn’t shy away from the slimy feeling that forced breeding for the Fulcrum gives you, or how it must feel to have birthed a child only to have him murdered by his own father.  Indeed, in the latter, you don’t have much choice but to feel it because Essun’s story is told entirely in the second-person.  It’s an unusual choice, but one that worked for me in a way that Ancillary Justice didn’t.  Maybe it worked too well. Yet, even experiencing Essun’s story first-hand, so to speak, doesn’t come close to some of the things you experience in Damaya’s story, or in Syenite’s.

There’s lots to love in the books – women make up the bulk of the story-telling, not just in primary characters, but in the secondary and tertiary ones, and even in mythological generals and emperors.  There’s the kind of diversity befitting a world made up of an enormous continent that spans from north to south pole, a continent that was also almost entirely ruled by one massive empire for a long period of time.  Characters come in varying shades of black, brown, pale, and white, with locked hair, kinky hair, coarse hair, straight hair, that can be blonde, white, brown, or ash-grey.  There are transgender characters, queer characters, polyamorous ones. Much of this diversity passes without comment in universe, excepting how it meets the breeding conformity standards left by the dying empire – and it provides a convenient template for the characters to describe the people they meet against.  It doesn’t feel forced, though I am sure the readers and writers who cower at the thought of having to meet “diversity quotas” in SFF might feel differently.  It’s nice to read about a world where racism, sexism, and homophobia are largely lacking – and it makes sense, because when the earth is capable of breaking apart and crushing entire communities, priorities shift.  While rape isn’t completely absent, in the sense that one plot centres largely around two people who despise each other being forced to breed under pain of execution, it feels like a symptom of the diseased system that is the Fulcrum, and not a societal ill bred in the bone by misogyny and homophobia.  Rape isn’t used as a punishment, of the characters, or of the reader for daring to read such a grim book.

Because it is grim.  If you can’t stand to read stories about children being harmed, graphically harmed, this book will probably not be for you.  There are at least three major plot points that all deal with a child’s death or mutilation.  If you’ve read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, it’s on par for sheer unbending despair – but. Who Fears Death is a standalone book, with a triumphant, if bittersweet end.  The Fifth Season is the first book of a trilogy, and ends on an appropriate cliffhanger for one.  Some threads come together, but nothing is solved, nothing is resolved and that feels like a poor payoff for 450 pages of heartbreak and dusty skies and gruesome death.

Will I buy book two?  Probably.  I like to support the kinds of writers I want to see more of, even if it’s not always to my exact taste.  I want to know what the deal is with… pretty much everything.  Will it also bum me the fuck out? I am almost sure of it.


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