The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

19161852

“The earth is good at healing itself. This wound will scab over quickly in geologic terms.”

The Fifth Season takes place in a world prone to periodic disasters called fifth seasons. Every once in a while, there’s a civilization destroying natural disaster and things get all post-apocalyptic for a time before life settles back down again and things get back to normal. This is a pretty brutal story featuring the deaths of children and large scale disasters, so be warned.

The people in this world have a sixth sense which is similar to touch, but much more sensitive called “sessing”. There are special people called orogenes (or derogatorily, roggas) who can control earthquakes, freeze people, and do other amazing things. The power is described as being based on emotion.

The orogenes are largely controlled by people called guardians who also have superpowers, but, just like in The Incredibles, the guardians get their powers artificially rather than naturally, so that means they’re evil. This is one of those stories like the X-Men where we’re supposed to feel sorry for the people with superpowers because they’re discriminated against by lesser humans, which has gotten to be a bit too cliche for me.

There are also mysterious god-like creatures called stone eaters. (Towards the end of the book, it’s supposed to be a surprising revelation that stone eaters actually eat stone. How is that a surprise? They’re called stone eaters!)

The story is told from the point of view of a mother named Essun, a child named Damaya, and a young woman named Syenite. Essun is trying to track down her husband who killed their son and kidnapped their daughter. Damaya is being trained on how to use her powers, and Syenite has been sent on a mission to help a city clear out an obstruction in their port.

They each have a male traveling companion for much of the novel. Essun’s traveling companion is a child named Hoa who serves as a replacement son. Damaya’s traveling companion is a father figure, while Syenite’s traveling companion is a man she’s meant to breed with.

Essun is mostly written in second person, although on page 240, her narration slips into third person accidentally. Syenite is mostly written in third person, but her narration slips into second person accidentally on page 347. Hoa even briefly gives us a first person narration on page 442. There are also occasional typos, so the editing is sloppier than I would have expected from a professionally published book.

***SPOILER BELOW! Skip one paragraph down to avoid spoiler.***

 

We learn early on that the three of them are actually all the same woman at different points in her life. For example, one clue is that all three of them are “ferals” (orogenes born to non-orogene parents). However, it’s not officially revealed that the three of them are the same woman until much later in the book, so I guess it was supposed to be a surprise. I’ll admit it was a bit hard for me to root for Damaya/Syenite/Essun since she killed so many innocent people along the way.

 

The technology level in this novel was hard for me to picture. For the most part, it seems to take place in a medieval setting, but every once in a while, things like telegraphs and electric lanterns get mentioned. Their medical technology is pretty close to what we have today. However, cannons are referred to as a recent invention. Why would discovering gun powder be more difficult than discovering electricity?

There’s a racially diverse cast of characters featuring a gay character, a bisexual character, and a transsexual (or possibly intersex) character. Some of them are even involved in a polyamorous relationship together. In addition to the anti-discrimination message, there’s also an environmentalist message. This is all fine, but to me, it kind of felt like the author was ticking off a checklist.

Some of the writing choices annoyed me a bit. Jemisin does things like combine two words together for no discernible reason (lanternsmoke). The narrator occasionally interrupts the flow of the story to break the fourth wall and directly address the reader. This reminded me I was reading a story and destroyed the suspension of disbelief. Although, I guess it’s necessary to tell us things such as this planet has no moon.

Jemisin plays around with formatting to a limited degree, inserting line breaks for emotional emphasis and writing things like “And then- And then- And then-” (page 262) which also brought me out of the story. She also uses words like “littlest” instead of “smallest” which sound wrong in my ears. Fake swear words like “rusting” are mixed in with real swear words. If you’re going to use real swear words anyway, why bother with psuedo swear words?

There was some clumsy foreshadowing in Chapter 11 when a schoolmate tells Damaya “You know how things are supposed to work, right? The good-looking popular guy suddenly shows interest in the mousy girl from the country. Everyone hates her for it, but she starts to gain confidence in herself. Then the guy betrays her and regrets it. It’s awful, but afterward she ‘finds herself,’ realizes she doesn’t need him, and maybe there’s some other stuff that happens.” Jemisin seems to be mocking the cliche, but then ends up embracing it because everything happens like he said it would.

I didn’t like this way of thinking: “The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”(p.371) This is a toxic way of thinking. In reality, the only way to improve the world is gradually. Destroying everything and starting over is the way dictators operate and it’s always disastrous.

On page 380, she claims “All legends contain a kernel of truth.” Really? What’s that supposed to even mean? I mean, the truth of the Chupacabra legend is that it was inspired by the 1995 movie Species, but I don’t think that’s the kind of truth she means.

Maybe I’m being too hard on The Fifth Season. It was fun to read and kept me turning pages until the cliff hanger ending. Perhaps my expectations going into it were too high because it was a Hugo Award winner. I did like this quote which might as well be describing present day discrimination:

“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection.[…] Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.” (p.76)

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