Book Review: The Fifth Season

5/5 Stars: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a wonderful, dark view of a world on the brink of collapse. She brings a unique perspective to the fantasy genre that you won’t find in any other author.  While the book at the beginning is confusing and there are lots of pieces that you don’t necessarily understand, The Fifth Season tells a dark story of a desperate mother and desperate world on the brink of collapse–and it doesn’t pull any punches.

When I started The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, I wasn’t sold. There were lots of things happening and many different perspectives that it was really hard for me to understanding what was happening when and to whom and how it all fight together. It was like looking at different pieces of the same tapestry without having an idea of the whole. But there was just enough in each chapter to keep me hooked and keep going — and I’m glad that I did. Later in the book, I got a much fuller picture of the tapestry.

For a quick background, The Fifth Season occurs in the world of Stillness (an ironic name), which is geologically super-active and there are more or less constant eruptions, earth quakes, and other geo-based nastiness. Humanity isn’t left defenseless however, there are special people called orogenes who have the ability to control the earth quakes and protect humanity … kinda. Where it gets interesting and deviates from the standard fantasy tropes is that the orogenes aren’t celebrated or venerated — they are hated. ‘Stills’ (normal people without orogenic powers) despise the orogenes and kill them whenever they are discovered.

The exception to this is the Fulcrum, an organization that exploits the orogenes, training them from childhood (killing off the under-performers), and sending them out into the world to deal with problems. When not our on an assignment, they are kept locked away in a compound, away from the rest of society.

There’s more to the situation than I want to write out here, because reading about it in the context of the book was at once a disturbing and moving experience. I think this is where Jemisin’s unique voice really shines. Throughout the book, there’s a constant background drone of despair and nihilism. It’s not just the main character, it’s the entire world seems to operate this way. It’s hard to explain as it’s more felt, an expertly crafted tone that I know is there, but have trouble pointing to any one example.

The story is follows Essun, a woman who’s husband, Jija, discovers that their son is an orogene, kills him, and then flees with their daughter. Upon discovering her dead son and putting the pieces together pretty easily, she resolves to track down her Jija and kill him and rescue her daughter. That scene sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The Fifth Season isn’t what I would call a happy read. As I said, it’s dark and disturbing and just close enough that you can see easily parallels to our world, which is uncomfortable. But I think that’s the point–the story is uncomfortable by design. I think that’s also what makes it important to read.

It reminds me of the Ancillary series in that respect–it’s an important read because it challenges our comfort zone and points out our faulty assumptions without sugar coating.

If I had a critique of the story, it’s that for probably the first half of the book, I was utterly confused and had no idea what was going on. I have all of these disparate pieces of the story and was struggling to make them fit together in any way that made sense. Around the 50% mark, Jemisin says a couple of things that explicitly drew the lines for me about how everything fit together. I wish that perhaps there had been more clues earlier in the book, or if I missed them, maybe slightly more obvious.

The Fifth Season is a story you read for how it can change your perspective on our world. While you could just read it as a story and ignore the all the underlying themes and parallels back to our world, I think you’d be doing yourself an injustice. It’s the beauty of this story that it is some uncomfortable, and it’s that discomfort that we feel while reading it that proves it has something important to say.

 

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