By N.K Jemisin
August 24, 2015 • 468 Pages
The Fifth Season is a fantasy novel set in the “Stillness” during a post-apocalyptic era. I hesitate to say “post” as it seems this “Father Earth” is always on the precipice of destruction.
(So in essence aren’t we always in a post-apocalypse…?)
The novel follows three main characters, all of whom are orogenes, or beings who have the ability to harness energy to manipulate the earth (like Avatars). There’s Essun, a mother who comes home to find her 9-year-old daughter missing and her two-year-old son beaten to death by her now missing husband; Syenite, an orogene who’s tasked with seducing and breeding with the world’s most skilled orogene; and Damaya a young girl recruited into the Fulcrum, a place orogenes are trained and used for their abilities.
Orogenes are feared and hated by society, treated like second-class citizens at best. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to draw upon real life examples to craft a believable reality for them. It is through their lens that we begin to unearth the Stillness, the perplexing mechanisms of its existence, and the oppressive politics of its peoples.
I read a lot of reviews claiming that the writing in this book requires dedication to get through, but I have to say that the writing is what draws me in. It is very descriptive, but for a world with so many moving parts, Jemisin gives enough without being overbearing. There are several moving parts to the Stillness that are only briefly explained but hinted at serving more important roles later on (e.g. the obelisks that levitate in the sky or the stone eaters that protect and feast on orogenes).
I enjoyed the effective use of second-person POV, which can come off as unnatural or can seem as if it’s trying too hard to place readers into the story. Its purpose becomes clear towards the end.
The (platonic) relationships in the novel are complex, believable, and my favorite parts of the story. I adore the Syen and Alabaster (and Innon) storyline as their relationship, while tumultuous and embittered, is endearing and heartbreaking. Two broken people– both in need of love, but unsure how to fully accept it. There is also the exploration of toxic, parental (?) love between Damaya and her Guardian. I question my designation for this relationship as it gives hints of grooming. Romance, while not to discount its value, is not given space to cheapen the characters’ motives, which gives other types of “love” room to flourish and evolve into more realistic portrayals of human connection.
My only small gripe: I found nearly all the characters interesting with the exception of Essun (ironically). Her journey toward finding her missing daughter, Nassun, feels half-assed. There isn’t enough urgency in her step, not enough thoughts dedicated to her worry or anxiety. In contrast to Hao and Tonkee, her companions on her search, she feels dull.
In regard to the BIG twist revealed at the end– I don’t know how I feel about it. I sort of saw it coming, reading early on that Damaya was Syen, but part of me feels that Damaya also being Essun is a bit much.
I did like seeing the evolution of her character from a type A, star pupil to a sarcastic and spunky respectably-ranked orogene, and then to a reclusive and reserved mother.
The Fifth Season tackles themes of race, systemic oppression, domestic violence, same-sex relationships, polyamory, transsexuality, and more without ever feeling as if it’s pushing an agenda. It seamlessly weaves critical and political commentary that lays parallel to our own realities without stepping out of its own world and into ours. There are far more questions than answers, but the ending and unresolved issues set the premise for a promising sequel.
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