The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

5thseasonTitle: The Fifth Season

Author: Jemisin, N.K. (Author’s Website)

Genre: Science Fiction, Apocalyptic Fiction, Epic Fantasy

Bibliographic: Orbit, 512 pages, Paperback List Price $15.99, Audiobook List Price $23.60, ISBNs 9780316229296, 9780316324977

Publication Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Multiple perspectives, authentic, complex, world-building, compelling, gritty, lyrical

Why I picked it up: I’ve been making a point of reading novels that the Sad Puppies disapprove of, and when this one won the Hugo I bumped it way up on my list.

S.I.A.S.: Essun is on a quest to get her daughter back, even though the world is ending.

Summary: The Stillness is a world beset by geological disturbances — major earthquakes are common, and minor earthquakes take the form of near-constant tremors; coastal towns live in fear of tsunamis. Society has been destroyed several times over, and yet the Sanzed empire has managed to survive several “fifth seasons” — extended winters after which society tries to rebuild itself from the ashes. The capital of the Sanzed empire, a city called Yumenes, is home to the Fulcrum, which is a school for orogenes (derogatorily called “roggas”) — people born with the ability to move mountains, stop earthquakes, and otherwise control the earth. The story opens as a man in Yumenes, accompanied by a being called a Stone Eater, rips a hole in the Earth and ushers in a new fifth season.

The story follows three perspectives:

  • Essun was a married mother of two until her husband, Jija, found out that their almost-three-year-old son Uche was an orogene and beat him to death. On the day the world ended, Essun was sitting in her house with Uche’s body and subconsciously used her orogeny to protect him and their town, revealing herself for what she is. When she comes back to her senses, Essun leaves town and follows the path she believes Jija to have taken in an attempt to save her daughter, Nassun, who is an orogene and is probably still alive. Along the way she is joined by Hoa, an exceedingly strange child, and Tonkee, who might be more than the homeless woman she seems to be at first.
  • Damaya was a young girl whose parents locked her in a barn and called the government once they discovered that she was a rogga. A man named Schaffa comes to take her to the fulcrum to be trained and educated. He breaks the bones in her hand en route, to show that he will not hesitate to hurt her in order to neutralize her power if that’s what’s necessary, but she comes to love him anyway because he’s the closest thing to a parent she has now. Damaya is not popular at the fulcrum, and devotes all of her energy to becoming good at what she does — and spends all of her free time exploring the fulcrum.
  • Syenite is a young fourth-level orogene who has been told to create a child with a tenth-level orogene (out of ten possible levels) named Alabaster. When Syenite and Alabaster are sent on a mission to save a coastal town, Alabaster shows Syenite the truth about how Sanzed society is supported and why he is so bitter, angry, and disaffected.

Evaluation:  This book is fantastic and I cannot wait to read the sequel (I’m picking it up from the library later this afternoon). I loved the three different narratives — Syenite’s was the most interesting, at least to me — and was totally surprised when I saw how the three stories intersected. The action came to life, especially towards the end of the book when Syenite is defending the island, and all of the characters were believable based on what we know about them. I would have liked to have learned more about Alabaster’s motivations, but I’m sure that some of that will come out in The Obelisk Gate.

I’m hesitant to say too much more about the book, because I am committed to keeping this spoiler-free as much as possible, but I will say there were multiple moments in the story that I was not expecting at all. For example, I was surprised to learn the truth about Tonkee, and about what Essun & Damaya & Syenite had to do with each other. I spent the book thinking it was sort of weird that Essun’s chapters were in second person but wasn’t expecting any sort of explanation for that choice, and so I was blindsided when the narrator revealed himself.

Other than the excellent twists, the other area where this book really stands out is in its world-building. Jesmin’s descriptions are clear and give a good sense of place, but even beyond that the culture she’s created here really comes through in her characters. Their obscenities, for example, firmly anchor them in a different world than the readers: the use of “rust” as a curse word was confusing the first time I saw it, since I thought it was just a regular adjective, but by the end you understand exactly that the characters mean. “Rogga” is another example, and Jesmin does a good job of first teaching the reader what it means and then emphasizing its connotation. The descriptions come across similarly — I didn’t find the glossary until I’d already finished the story, but by the end I could easily understand what “ashblow hair” was.

The one thing I didn’t like about the book was its ending. I hate cliffhangers, and wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone without warning them that they need to get The Obelisk Gate as well — at this point, I don’t know that the second book is as good as the first so there’s a level of risk there. Otherwise, though, this could easy become a Swiss-Army-Fantasy Book: good for all occasions.

Significance: Not only did this book win the Hugo Award for best novel, it is the first novel by a black author to do so. It is also the first in what will be a trilogy.

Readalikes: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor. Winterbirth, by Brian Ruckley. Planet of Exlie, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Near the end of the book, Lerna says that, despite having grown up knowing that their society was designed around the ability to survive a fifth season he never expected to personally live through one, and the narrator says “Everyone thinks that. You certainly weren’t expecting to have to deal with the end of the world on to p of everything else.” How do you feel about that? Have you ever had to live through something that you only thought would happen to other people?
  2. Alabaster argues that “You can’t make anything better… The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it all and start all over again, there’s no changing it.” Do you agree? Do you think his statement is more true about the Stillness than it is about the real world? Why or why not?
  3. Essun is surprised to see that Tonkee has put books in her runny-sack. Are books essential? Why might Tonkee have included them?
  4. How much agency do the orogenes have? How can you maintain your personhood in a situation where you have no autonomy?
  5. Do you think this story takes place on our Earth? Why or why not? Did the book’s ending change your mind?

Lists and Awards: Hugo Awards: Best Novel. Library Journal Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. New York Times Notable Books — Fiction and Poetry: 2015.

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. Publisher’s Weekly. New York Times. NPR. Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

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