Monday, September 5, 2016
Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall;
Death is the fifth, and master of all.
See below for my full review. As always, I aim to be mostly spoiler-free.
It is easy to see why this novel was the 2016 Hugo Award winner. The story is just incredible, with plot, setting, and characters all being creative and engaging. It's the sort of story that leaves you wondering what do you want to be and do with life. And then confronts you with what to do when you realize you can't be what you want, but must instead struggle to survive.
This novel starts explosive with an exciting prologue describing a cataclysmic event: the start of a Season. After that we go back and forth in time with various characters. Through them we learn about the world, its people, and its history. Each of the characters sub-stories are interesting and engaging so you get sucked in to the story and end up reading it very fast, staying up late at night, or risk missing subway stops. You have Damaya, the young orogene that struggles with her new life and identify; Syenite, Fulcrum-trained orogene ambitious to climb the ranks and secure her place in the hierarchy; and Essun, a mother hiding her secret and searching for her daughter during the Season.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to various characters before and after the events in the prologue. Generally, we follow Damaya, Syenite, and Essun and the relationship between them is revealed as the story progresses. One of the coolest things, in my opinion, is that the point of view changes quite drastically between them. Generally, most novels are in third person and we see this here too, but when with Essun we are in second person, which is very rare to see. It actually works quite well here: this isn't Essun telling us her story or the narrator telling us what happened, we are Essun and this is our story.
In addition to these three main women, we also see other prominent characters like Tonkee, Hoa, and Alabaster. Jemisin manages to portray a wide variety of characters that lie anywhere in the spectrum of races, gender identities, and sexual preferences and manages to make them all vivid and real.
Setting / World Building
The Fifth Season has a fascinating universe. The world is called The Stillness and it is nothing but still: there are frequent earthquakes and other kinds of seismic activity. In fact, every so often these are so violent and dangerous that they destroy or significantly hamper civilization bringing about a cataclysm referred to as a "Season". These Seasons can last months, years, or even decades. The history of the world is broken and fractured, but the remnants that remain track their progress via Seasons and refined old practices, the stonelore, to teach the new generations what to do when a Season comes.
At the end of the book, there's an Appendix describing some of the history, which is always cool to read about. Chief in their recent history is the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, the empire that conquered and united the Stillness and managed to survive for many, many Seasons. They created the Fulcrum, to train and control orogenes to make life easier for others. Orogeny is the magic of this world, one that revolves around kinetic and thermal energy and is tied to the earth. An orogene has the power to move the earth or still shakes, making them very valuable. However, they are feared or hated by others and are frequently referred to by their more derogatory term: roggas. Orogenes' place in society is a big theme in this book.
The world is old and many civilizations have fallen before the time of Sanze. We sometimes see glimpses of their ruins, most notable of which are the obelisks which float across the sky. What their purpose was has been lost to time, but maybe we'll learn more about them in books to come. In addition to all this we have creatures like the stone eaters. Exactly what they are is unclear, but they always seem to be there in the thick of things. More mysteries to explore...
This was a fascinating and very engaging book. I read it quite fast and enjoyed every bit of it. The characters, plot, and setting were all quite enjoyable and vivid. I always like it when magic is tied to reality and this book does that very nicely with their orogeny. There's also a bit of astronomy (called astronomestry), though its treated as a pseudoscience in the novel. I will certainly be grabbing its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, now that it's out. I highly recommend you check this out. Of the various Jemisin books I've read, I consider this one to be her best, with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a close second.