Review: The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin)

Book Review:  The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Fantasy, Post-apocalyptic/#1 of 3, The Broken Earth Trilogy

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say ‘the world has ended,’ it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.”

One of the benefits of not having a rating system is that when I feel like it, I can arbitrarily make one up. With that in mind I would like to give The Fifth Season FIVE MILLION STARS. I loved this book.

The basic premise: the ironically named Stillness is a world in constant motion, wracked by earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis. Some people – called the orogenes – are born with an innate ability to manipulate the earth, calming or exacerbating the seismic that is part of daily life. They are the most feared and yet most valuable members of society, and are isolated and tightly controlled from childhood or birth – whenever they are first discovered.

The Fifth Season is remarkable in every way; it is brilliantly and beautifully written. I love the combination of fantasy/science fiction/post-apocalyptic influences in the story, and the unpredictability the unusual hybrid of genres creates.  The sweeping drama of the world is a fantastic backdrop to the true drama, which is intensely personal in nature.  It’s one of those rare and especially rewarding books where a new bit of information, dropped well into the book, suddenly makes all the pieces of the story fall into place and connect in a way that they didn’t before. (I am guessing that a lot of people, like me, exclaimed “Aha!” out loud at one point while reading the book. Though hopefully they didn’t do it on a bus full of people and startle the stranger sitting next to them, like I did.)

This book was full of surprises for me. One was the fact that one of the three main storylines, one of them uses second person pronouns to great effect. I usually detest second-person. I can think of at least two occasions just in the last year where I stopped reading a book because I couldn’t handle the use of second-person narration. But there is an exception to every rule, and The Fifth Season has proven to be that exception for me.  Of the three storylines, the second-person one was the most striking and powerful.

Another pleasant surprise was the thoughtful depiction of a caring, committed polyamourous relationship, as well as queer and trans representation among the central cast. I shouldn’t have been surprised, N. K. Jemisin being as awesome as she is, but it is such a rare thing. But that endorsement comes with a caveat: this is a book about the end of the world. If you’re looking for a book where queer characters are allowed to be happy, this is not it. The Fifth Season is wonderful but heartbreaking.

My only slight complaint about The Fifth Season is that is plays into the trope of oppressed underclass having amazing superpowers. It’s a super common metaphor (Dragon Age, X-Men, etc) and always a flawed one, since it means there is some inherent power that provides something of a rational basis for the fear and distrust of the Other. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I enjoy it as an empowerment fantasy – and really, who doesn’t love reading (watching films/tv, playing games) about people who can split open the ground and cause earthquakes, like the orogenes in The Fifth Season? But realistically the most repressed and feared people are those who have the least power, and so the equivalency rings false.

But that said I still love the way this book deals with themes of subjugation. I want to mention the book’s beautiful dedication for a moment:

“For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.”

I tend to flip through the first few pages of a book, so I didn’t actually notice it until I went back to collect the quote for this review. I found it made me really emotional at that point, maybe because having already read the whole painful and beautiful story made it more poignant. In spite of my complaints about the superpowered underclass, this book was a wonderful study in the ways in which oppression is internalized, and the ways in which the oppressed try to gain control and recognition. In particular, the characters of Syenite and Alabaster offer conflicting methods of dealing with their status: Syenite learns to work the system that oppresses her, to try and achieve as much power as she can playing by their rules, being a part of their culture. The older, stronger Alabaster is powerful enough and jaded enough that he rejects their values and attitudes, but even he still has a hard time completely rejecting their institutions entirely (like when he gives Syenite her rings).  The system is held up not just by the oppressors, but by the oppressed, who either end up dead or so thoroughly assimilated that they become complicit in their own subjugation.

The Fifth Season is unique, captivating, and haunting, with memorable characters and a well-crafted plot. There are so many clever things that I just can’t discuss without spoiling; suffice to say that I enormously enjoyed this book.

If you like ____________, you might enjoy The Fifth Season:

  • Post-apocalyptic literature
  • Dark, epic fantasy
  • Character-driven books
  • Beautiful writing
  • Themes of systemic discrimination, prejudice, parent-child love and loss, endings.

If you dislike ____________, you might want to avoid The Fifth Season:

  • Being sad 🙁

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