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Hugo Nominees 2016: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.

According to the official summary, The Fifth Season is about a woman searching for her daughter in a post-apocalyptic world. Technically, that’s true. But it doesn’t really capture the essence of the book.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that faces apocalyptic geological events, called Fifth Seasons, fairly frequently. Everything in society is built around preventing a Season, if they possibly can, or else surviving one if it comes along. The world also has magic users, called Orogenes, who are feared and hated for their ability to control the forces of the earth — or to kill people, if they use their power untrained. They work to prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other potentially Season-causing catastrophes, but society despises them none-the-less.

The novel has three orogene protagonists. There’s a young girl, Damaya, whose parents just discovered she is an orogene. There’s a young woman, Syenite, who is trying to climb to the top of the orogene ranks and has just been sent on a seemingly run-of-the-mill mission with her new mentor. And there’s Essen, a middle-aged woman living in hiding whose husband just murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter after realizing that they were orogenes.

The first thing to note is that NK Jemisin has an amazing writing style. It’s vivid and engaging, and often invokes a sense of oral storytelling, reflecting the story’s preoccupation with the problems of recorded history and lore. She writes in third person for Damaya and Syenite, but uses second person for Essen, forcing the reader to meld with her character. This doesn’t mean that Essen lacks personality — far from it — but it pulls the reader 100% into her perspective, which is especially powerful considering how atypical Essen is as a fantasy protagonist. She’s a dark-skinned middle-aged woman, and the reader cannot escape empathizing with her.

The Fifth Season is also the sort of book that you feel like you’re unravelling as you go along, trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together. When are the three protagonists’ stories happening, relative to each other? How are their stories connected? The novel opens with a figure choosing to destroy the world, but who is it, why did they want to do that, how did they do it? What is this world we’re thrown into, and how does it work? It’s the sort of novel that you want to start rereading the moment you finish it, just to see all the things you missed and how it all fit together.

Sometimes, though, the book feels more like a puzzle than a story. Each protagonist has their own plotline, but most of my engagement with the book came from trying to figure out all of its secrets and see how the different stories all fit together. It does deliver on most of these promises, but it causes a slight problem in pacing. I figured out the answers to most of the puzzles at just the right time, usually maybe one chapter ahead of when it was confirmed, so that element of pacing was good, but sometimes I found myself wondering how the random plot threads were connected to the main story of the apocalypse. SPOILERS (highlight to read): Of course, the revelation that all three protagonists are the same person explains some of this, but doesn’t really fix the reading experience itself. I wondered how life on a pirate island was connected to the apocalypse, for example, and it wasn’t, really, beyond the impact it had on Essen and Alabaster. It made me lose some of my engagement with the novel toward the end.

Despite its official description, The Fifth Season is not really apocalyptic fiction. It’s a story about orogenes, which means that it’s a story about freedom, power, and slavery. Orogenes who are deemed controllable are taken to the Fulcrum, where they are trained to be useful, and to obey their Guardians without question. They are the monsters, they’re told, and they must be controlled. Through the novel, we see the story of one girl who is being pulled into this world, and who is made to believe that embracing it is the only way she can be loved and safe, side-by-side with the story of the young woman who is gradually starting to question this world and how it treats her, after growing up wanting to play by its rules to succeed. And it’s all capped by that official summary story, of the older woman who tried to run away and hide from the whole system, but who is being crushed by it anyway.

Mixed in with these intense themes is an interest in history and stories — what people tell you, what’s been forgotten, and what actually happened. In particular, the book is concerned with the story of a particularly evil orogene who slaughtered everyone in their path and was defeated by a noble hero who became the first Guardian. We’re first introduced to this tale through Damaya, who is told it as her new Guardian breaks her hand to teach her that she is potentially a villain and she must therefore obey at all costs. It’s a shocking scene, the first sign that the apparently nice Guardian isn’t so wonderful after all, and its implications resonate through the rest of the novel.

As The Fifth Season is set in a society where darker skin is the default, it’s definitely an extremely diverse book by typical fantasy standards. It’s also an intersectional book, with a trans character, gay characters… basically all the people left out of typical sci-fi/fantasy and apocalypse narratives.

Because of its structure, The Fifth Season feels very much like it should be a standalone book. I forgot, as I was reading, that it was the first in a trilogy, and the lies of my kindle page count (thanks, free sample and appendices!) made me extra surprised to turn the page on a certain line and realized I’d reached the end. But it feels so much like a standalone novel that at first I tried to reconcile the final line as a kind of open-ended conclusion, until I looked it up and found out there are going to be two more books.

One problem with the first book in a trilogy is that it’s hard to tell what was left out on purpose for later, and what was just confusing or incomplete. In particular, I was left wondering pretty much everything about stone-eaters and how they fit into the world. And what were those obelisks? What did happen at Allia? Lots of points confused me, and I can’t tell, as yet, whether everything will be explained later, or whether the book was unintentionally unclear.

Still, The Fifth Season is a really inventive, well-written and powerful book. I found my attention wandering slightly at the end, but overall, it’s a solid and refreshing story. I’m not sure where I’m going to place it against Uprooted and the other books on the ballot I’ve yet to read, but it’s definitely worth giving a read.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

2 thoughts on “Hugo Nominees 2016: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

  1. Fantastic Review! Longtime reader of the blog that just had to drop in to comment on this book.
    Having read both Uprooted and The Fifth Season, I’m not sure that I’d be able to decide between them. Uprooted had a fairytale quality that I thought was incredibly well done, but was plagued by a formulaic romance and a somewhat scattered plot. Even then, I find myself smiling whenever I think about it. It was such a fun read with great writing and a lovely female friendship that was important to the plot.
    The Fifth Season was stranger in that almost everything, even the things that I didn’t necessarily appreciate, sort of ended up working for me because of the novel’s sheer confidence. I’ve now read a few of Jemisin’s novels and have liked most of them (I’d definitely recommend The Shadowed Sun for its unique heroine), but this book was on a completely different level. The world building was so rich that I could practically see it at the corner of my vision. It got me in the gut so many times that I had to put the book down because I was being overwhelmed. It’s a world that seems so familiar with its prejudice and hate and destruction but also distant with its more fantastic quality.
    I loved the characters, particularly Syenite, who navigated the world in a fascinating way. She’s not the typical sarcastic rebel, improbably frothing at the mouth when with her superiors, she’s had to be smarter than that to survive. She smiles, she bows, and she seethes. And yet while surviving, she’s lost some crucial part of herself and she doesn’t even recognize it.
    The format of the book was also wonderful, but I do think that it might be responsible for the weaknesses you’ve discussed above. Because of the book’s many twists, certain things had to happen at a certain pace and that was often frustrating. I couldn’t help but wonder what the book would have been like if things had been a bit simpler narrative wise.
    I’m curious on your thoughts about the conclusion of Syenite’s story. I won’t put any spoilers here but will say that this for me was where the book felt most hampered by its format. I was expecting something with more of an emotional pay-off then what actually transpired, which wasn’t bad by any means, but felt a bit clunky. Also, did you have a favorite perspective?
    I too was baffled by the idea that this could be a trilogy because of the way it’s written. I’m actually pretty excited because I have no idea what this next book will look like. Happy reading!

    1. I think I’m going to be struggling to choose between those two as well. I feel like The Fifth Season was more challenging and inventive in a “major award worthy” way, but those things also created flaws that led to a less satisfying reading experience, as you said.

      I think my favorite perspectives were Damaya and Syenite, and I think Damaya edges out Syenite in the end because her story-arc felt more complete. Syenite was really interesting for most of the book, but things got less so once she got to the island. It felt like her story arc dragged on too far for one book, just because the other two stories needed it to progress further to tie together. Trying to express this without obvious spoilers! But yeah, as you said — the format makes the book more original, but it also created a lot of flaws.

      And thanks for the book rec! I was new to both Naomi Novak and NK Jemisin, and I’m going to have to dig into their back catalogues. Now I have somewhere to start!

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