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Book Review: The Fifth Season by N K Jemesin

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on January 21, 2016

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This article was updated on April 27, 2017

Every week of 2016 I am going to read and review a book. This means that while you may not always get an in depth dissection whatever my gut reaction to a book was will be presented here without time softening my opinions.

Given a bit of time and distance I can easily see N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season showing up in my Classics Reviews instead of here. It is a science fiction / fantasy book set on a geologically unstable world where constant earthquakes and other seismic disruptions are constantly destroying civilisation with the most major of these disruptions being the titular fifth season; when enough ash is thrown up into the atmosphere to create a long, drawn out winter that can last years at a time.

In a very real way the book is set in a post-apocalyptic civilisation that has survived not just one but multiple world ending events, building on the knowledge gleaned from the survivors of the previous apocalypse in preparation for the next one in the ongoing cycle.

The story follows three separate women who have the dubious gift of orogeny, a quasi-magical control over the earthquakes that is normally used to calm the world but has historically been used as a weapon, resulting in fear and hatred towards everyone possessing it. A large portion of the book deals with the idea that just because someone is talented, society has a right to exploit that talent for the betterment of all. Something that is easy to argue from an egalitarian standpoint but is impossible to believe when you are among the people being exploited, dehumanised, degraded and hated.

Instability is at the core of both the world and story of The Fifth Season. You are never sure when the women's stories are set in reference to the others' although it is clear that they are not happening simultaneously. You are never sure who is narrating the story as it switches from the third and second person perspectives. You are never sure how the rules of the world are going to twist and change as the plot unfolds. The Fifth Season changes everything, both in the world and in the narrative. The orogenes, trying to hold onto stability as the world bucks and changes around them and clinging to their old lives by will alone, can only do so much.

There is not a single moment when you are not entirely sympathetic to the heroines of the Fifth Season. The writing, for all that it switches and shifts around you, is beautifully concise and utilitarian. You are drip fed information as it becomes necessary to the characters, not as it becomes necessary to the reader, keeping a constant air of mystery hanging over plot points that a lesser author would let slip to the reader well ahead of time. All of this adds to the survivalist atmosphere of the book and the intensity of each new revelation's impact, even information is carefully rationed.

This book is flawless.

The Fifth Season is the first book of what Jemisin is calling the Broken Earth Trilogy and while the plot forms a perfect arc for the characters on its own, if she could please hurry up with the other two books I would appreciate it.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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