I feel like I need to start this review with my movie announcer voice: “In a world…”
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is the long-awaited new novel from one of my (and many fans) favorite voices in fantasy fiction. Jemisin has become known for creating amazing original worlds and filling them with fully-realized characters. She is also known for taking all the things that people complain about in the fantasy genre—too many people of one color, vaguely medieval settings, female characters that only fill to role of damsels in distress, pretty much all the things on the fantasy novelist’s exam—and fixing them.
The Fifth Season is set in a world (move announcer voice) that is prone to major extinction events due to its unstable plate tectonics and climate changes. Humanity has learned to adapt. People use “stonelore” to preserve the harsh rules they need to survive long seasons without harvests and resurrect civilization. Orogenes—people with the ability to redirect the planet’s thermal and kinetic energy to stop or start earthquakes—are necessary, but greatly feared by the non-orogene population. Unless they control their emotions, orogenes have the ability to kill people with their abilities. What we don’t know is how far this fear goes on this unnamed planet until we’ve taken a journey with Jemisin’s narrators—Damaya, Syenite, and Essun—as the world appears to be ending once more.
Another thing Jemisin is very good as is building a world without dumping a lot of information on her readers. Everything about the history of the world and its cultures is picked up through context. A prologue with a male character and a stone-eater shows us how this version of the world is going to end. This male character is very, very angry about how his people are treated. In revenge, he rips open a massive rift in the earth’s crust that destroys the largest city in the world. The first chapter whisks us away to a small town far to the south of the earthquake where a woman mourns the murder of her child by her husband. This narrator tells her story in the second person—a technique that still bothers me, to be honest. But Essun’s narrative becomes especially moving by forcing “You” to stand in her shoes as she goes looking for her husband and her kidnapped daughter while everyone prepares for another long “Fifth Season,” a season of death. Through Essun, we learn about the prejudice against orogenes. She had to hide what she is from her community, and teach her children how to hide their abilities.
After a chapter with Essun, Jemisin introduces us to Syenite, an orogene who has survived the harsh training of the Fulcrum and is now on her first outside mission. Syenite’s story is clearly set some time before the prologue and shows us the only acceptable path for orogenes in this world. We learn about the Guardians that have the authority to end them if an orogene steps out of line. We learn what happens to young orogenes who can’t learn to “control” themselves. The third narrator, Damaya, is a young girl with orogenic powers who has just been plucked from her home and is on her way to the Fulcrum for training. It’s hard to suss out if Syenite’s story or Damaya’s are chronologically contemporary or if one is set earlier than the other.
I twigged to the connection between the three narrators about halfway through the book, but I won’t hint at what it is for fear of ruining it for other readers. Even without revealing the connection, the three narrative voices tell compelling stories about their journey through this world. I was equally fascinated by them and by the world Jemisin created. As I write this, I’m struggling to fight through the urge to just gush about this book and actually write a decent, informative review. I think this is going to be a book that I’m just going to shove into readers’ hands and say, “Read this!”
There were two other thoughts I had about The Fifth Season while I was reading it. The first is that the Sad/Rabid Puppies are going to hate this book. The characters and the narrators’ stories highlight social injustice. Some of the characters are gay and most of them are what people in our reality would say are “of color.” The other thought I had is that if The Fifth Season doesn’t win major awards next year, the system is broken. The fact that Sad/Rabid Puppies will probably hate its subject matter is probably a good indicator that this is a great book by any indicator a reader would care to use: “You don’t have to take my word for it!”
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give this to readers who need help seeing how fear of and misunderstanding about a particular group of people leads to prejudice and injustice.