NK Jemisin has always been an author I’ve kept on my radar; she’s a social activist, an incredibly interesting person to follow, and, above all else (from a book review standpoint), a pretty damn good writer.
Generally speaking, I try to avoid politics when it comes to authors and books, but I often get looped in – many of the authors I follow lean one way or the other politically and socially, often very vehemently so. Most believe similar things to what I do, and then there are people like the Sad Puppies. Nora Jemisin is part of the former in that group, much moreso than I am – a proponent of human rights, equality, and fair treatment, both in her books and in her life.
And that translates well into her novels, luckily. More on that later.
The Fifth Season is a really exciting book – the premise alone had me hooked, the cover art is grabbing, and, of course, the writer drew me in. I’ve read a couple of Jemisin’s other books, and largely enjoyed them – she’s very much in what I call ‘The Polansky Category’: Great prose, good subject matter, but never quite puts the pieces all together to hit the perfection (for me – I have unique tastes and qualifications, though). This book, however, is about as close to that “whole package” as I think most authors could ever aspire to, and yet still left me feeling like she has so much more to offer, which is a very exciting prospect.
I will try to avoid being too spoilery while talking about the book, though most people figure out how things are going fairly early on into reading. The Fifth Season follows three storylines; three women of varying ages, in different locations, in different time periods. Essun, a woman living in a small village, has a major secret. Upon discovering her secret, her husband murders one of their children, and kidnaps their other child, abandoning them. Essun embarks on a quest to find him, avenge the death of her son, and hopefully save the life of her daughter.
Syenite is an Orogene – a group of magically gifted people, feared and reviled, as much as they are necessary to the land’s health. They possess the power to move and manipulate the earth in drastic ways, and are understandably dangerous due to this ability. Syenite is controlled by the Fulcrum, the training and control center of the Orogenes, and is sent on a routine earth shaping mission with a powerful 10-ringer, Alabaster, who she is also expected to become impregnated by for the good of the Fulcrum.
Damaya is a young Orogene, taken from her home by a Guardian – one of the Fulcrum’s powerful Orogene neutralizers and controllers. She is taken to the Fulcrum to begin her training as an Orogene, working her way up through the schooling as her life becomes a whirlwind of change and events.
Each of these three storylines are intricate and detailed, incredibly gripping, and very interesting. I found myself caring about the characters, their situations, what happened to them. They all went through events that were scary, heart wrenching, and downright tragic, and had to deal with the emotions and scars from those events, all while growing as people. The characterization is very deftly handled; Jemisin understands human emotions, variations, growth. Her female characters have an expected level of realness and are skillfully written, but her male characters are also fairly close to spot on (although many of them felt like the outwardly-callous-but-with-a-very-soft-side type). Her dialogue, emotions, feelings, love, conversations; they all make sense, they all are engrossing and heart wrenching and beautiful.
The worldbuilding is also quite fantastic here – the story takes place on a continent called The Stillness, which, ironically, is a continent in extreme turmoil. They are on many tectonic plates, and are in constant motion and threat of eruptions, earthquakes, and the like. The Orogenes who can control the earth are, in many cases, the only things keeping the continent safe, which is part of the reason they are tolerated by the general population (or “Stills“). The world also is exposed to catastrophic “seasons”, periods of extreme turmoil and geological events that threaten the lives of the Stills. There is a constant threat of another major event setting off another Season, which could spell the end for so many people.
The elements of the world, the magic, the characters all come together beautifully, and the story grabs you from start to finish. Jemisin’s writing ties it all together, with wonderful prose that is both beautiful and easy to read. Her beliefs shine through in her characters; multiple trans characters, characters of many different races, and relationships such as an MMF polyamorous threeway (for lack of a better way of describing it in my vocabulary) are present in the book. Jemisin inserts these underused and underrepresented character types into her story with skill, and while there sometimes feels like as many possible sexual and racial type are represented in the story, it’s done with deftness in general, and feels quite natural. It is a point, without being an intrusive one – never feels like there’s a hard message being shoved in your face, but rather just an translation of the diversity of our world into the world she has created. The fact that I’m even pointing all of this out means that these are so underrepresented in fantasy that it’s a point of note when they ARE present in any numbers, which is why I believe authors like Jemisin are essential to moving forward the genre, as well as moving forward western values as a whole.
The only complaints I had about the book were that one of the storylines was presented in a second-person perspective, while the other two were in third person. I have read lots of reviews that say it “made sense in the end”; I personally felt it still could have been handled in third person entirely, and felt that the third person chapters were much easier to read, and the transitions in POV were a bit jarring, even after hundreds of pages. Personal feeling only, from a literary standpoint, it might have been the right choice. For me, it just made reading those chapters a bit more awkward than they could have been.
Overall, I can safely say I loved this book. I wanted to read it whenever I wasn’t, I wanted to find out what was happening. The ending was heartbreaking and moving, and so much of the story was emotionally taxing, and so brilliantly handled. Jemisin’s writing is great, and I feel like I’ve enjoyed each book of hers more than I enjoyed the previous one. I’m very excited to see where this series ends up.