THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
N. K. Jemisin is a writer who I have admired since her first series, the Inheritance Trilogy, and who has only improved over the course of her succeeding novels; so I’ve been looking forward to The Fifth Season since it was announced, to the point of buying the ARC in the Con or Bust auction just to lay hands on it faster.
Warning: this review contains some SPOILERS for plot and structure.
The blurb of The Fifth Season arguably reveals one of the most interesting things Jemisin pulls off in the novel; mentioning only Essun, it ignores the two plot threads of the novel that follow Damaya and Syenite (Syen), plot threads that at the start of the novel could be roughly contemporaneously set with Essun’s journey but increasingly, as the novel continues, are obviously not, and are instead Essun’s own history. Jemisin pulls off this trick excellently; each name reflects not only a different stage in Essun’s life, but also a different person, defined by experience and by the image Essun feels it necessary to convey in order to be safe. Indeed, this code-switching narrative in The Fifth Season is one we don’t see enough of in fantasy; a look, through the eyes of one character (referred to in the second person present as Essun, in the third past for the other characters, in an early hint of the later revelation), at how one has to change one’s self-presentation for self-preservation. Essun is a member of oppressed classes, too, as a woman (the main society of the novel seems to be patriarchal, or at least the society Essun starts in is) and as an orogene, a kind of geological magic user, treated like witches by villagers and like dangerous animals to be trained and used by the main state. Watching Essun negotiate these statuses, and how she has to act because of them, is fascinating; as is watching others use different strategies to negotiate the various axes of oppression on which they fall, such as Alabaster, whose orogenic power allows him to bypass a certain amount of the self-preservation efforts that Syenite must engage in.
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the cast of The Fifth Season than code-switching, that self-preservation; they’re an amazingly diverse, well-thought-out group. Essun is obviously the most complex, bearing the different selves she has been on her shoulders as she changes from a seemingly diffident wife and mother to return more to her confident self, but not unchanged by that experience; the evolution of character she undergoes across the course of the book is one of the most impressive character developments I have ever read, tying three distinct moments together and yet not letting any of those moments be static or unchanging themselves. That’s not to say that characters who only appear in one of those moments aren’t good or rounded characters, though; Jemisin has created a tremendous ensemble cast in The Fifth Season to surround her undeniable protagonist, and they’re all well-written, interesting characters, all of whom have fascinatingly different attitudes to Essun and her abilities, from Schaffa Guardian Warrant, an abusive sadist who Damaya doesn’t realise is either of those things and who is amazingly written as showing a face of benevolence over a reality of brutal cruelty, to Alabaster, the incredibly powerful orogene who doesn’t really care about the opinions of those around him but who is also a deeply sensitive person once his defences of apathy fall, and the smart, slightly unworldly Tonkee, who joins Essun on her journey only to turn out to be someone unexpected from her past. Every character has a unique voice and character, and they all have different masks they wear; no one is who one assumes them to be at first glance.
This is also a very queer book, despite its patriarchal societies. The Fifth Season‘s core relationship goes from being a purely sexual, heterosexual one to being an emotional, polyamorous, queer triad; Jemisin handles the transition, the growing feelings, the introduction of an additional character, incredibly well and beautifully, giving the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is incredibly erotic, incredibly sensual, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly human, as well as incredibly beautiful, with the kind of quality of sex scenes we have come to expect of her and the kind of emotional honesty, including conflict, that reflects reality rather than some idealised idea of polyamory. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen poly in a novel but it is certainly one of the best instances, and truly beautifully conveyed.
Of course, there’s more to The Fifth Season than character; all this is, after all, happening against the background of an apocalypse. “An” apocalypse is the best descriptor, because this is a world which is incredibly unstable and appears to undergo regular apocalypses; everyone is a survivalist, because you have to be prepared for the next time the world upheaves itself under you, and society is organised around principles that are intended to aid in that preservation, such as a caste system, although that appears to have ossified into a problematic heirarchy as time has gone on. An empire rules over small communities, an empire that has lasted through a number of these apocalypses somehow; but this apocalypse, it won’t emerge from. The Fifth Season has an awful lot going on; Damaya is learning what it is to be an orogene, how society views her because of it and what the demands of the empire on her are. Syenite is learning about heirarchies with the orogenes, and how the empire uses them – the things that they’re not told, and have to try to learn from themselves; the abuses of orogenes perpetuated by the empire. And Essun is simply trying to find her daughter, after her son is murdered by her husband for being an orogene; fleeing through this apocalyptic (the apocalypse isn’t over, so though N. K. Jemisin describes the book as post-apocalypse, I don’t think that’s quite accurate) novel. This is where the novel starts to run into some problems; each strand follows the same parallel path – a journey that ends in finding a new community – but their pacing is different and the way Jemisin times them is different, which means chapters can jar against those around them because of a different feel or approach. This is the kind of literary structural engineering I really appreciate in a novel, and Jemisin carries off the theme elegantly; but the actual mechanics of precisely how parts of it work are less smooth, less polished, than would be ideal.
In the end, though, I have no hesitation about recommending The Fifth Season to you; it’s a fantastic novel that I heartily enjoyed, and a fascinating opening to a new series from one of the best writers in fantasy.
The Fifth Season comes out August 4th from Orbit Books