Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

It’s been ages since I put out a book review, and it took me several months to work my way through The Fifth Season. I want to assure you right away, this was not because it was a bad book. Quite the opposite, really. I’ve just been having brain problems because of MS relapses, and there were days when I couldn’t retain anything I tried to read. This makes it hard to review something if I can’t remember it, so I usually put the book down on those days and wandered off to play Dark Souls.

Let us begin with where my interest in the series started because it wasn’t with me buying the first book. I bought it for my husband, who was about to go on another long distance flight for work, and I remembered N.K. Jemisin being a writer I followed on Twitter who writes fantasy, and hubby loves fantasy. So one book purchase later, I went back to work on my stuff and promptly forgot about it.

Then in mid August, the 2018 Hugo awards winners were announced, and here’s N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky winning Best Novel of the Year. So I do a bit of digging and see that all three books in the trilogy won a Hugo, and The Stone Sky also picked up a Nebula and a Locus award. That makes the whole series a bit more intriguing. I mean, sure, one book in a series wins, you’ve done good. But if the whole series wins year on year? Then you must have done something special to earn that kind of praise. So, is that the case?

Well…I think the first book does deserve its award. (Obviously I can’t speak on the other two because I haven’t read them yet) From a reader’s perspective, it’s very good at building a world that may or may not be Earth roughly twelve to fourteen million years in the future. (Or possibly further ahead, and please understand that my knowledge of plate tectonics is somewhat faded and I can’t recall when the continents are next due to collapse back together into a single supercontinent.) In this world, the health of the continent and the people living on it rests in the figurative hands of a gifted group of people called orogenes. (I’d say what they do is geomancy, but that’s beauty of writing your own story. You can call your magic people whatever tickles your fancy.) These orogenes are feared by the normal “stills” and the book opens with an angry orogene showing exactly what the stills have to fear by shattering a fault line and destroying many cities in the process. The resulting clouds of ash and soil also kick off the titular Fifth Season.

I now have to post a spoiler warning for the things I’m going to discuss next, so if you want to go into this book with as little preparation as possible, stop here and just go buy the book already. Nothing I’m going to talk about means this is a bad book, and I’ll even go one step farther and give you the final verdict ahead of the spoilers. Four stars, with solid writing and a fascinating vision of a far distant future. I highly recommend it, so head on out to your nearest bookstore or Amazon and pick it up.

Still here? Okay from a writer’s perspective, there was a major problem that kept pulling me out of the story. The book is written from three narrative angles, with one using the very bold choice of second person perspective narration. (ie: You are the person this is happening to now. You inhale sharply and ask, “Me? This is my story?” But even without anyone answering, you know it really is.) Because of three lines in the other parts slipping into second person perspective, I have a theory that the book was originally all written in the same way. Either the writer or the editor opted for a change, possibly to make it harder to guess that all three perspective are actually the same person at three different points in their life.

But this change is also what kept pulling me out of the story to ask, “But if there was this earth shattering event, why are two out these three people not noticing any disasters?” The answer comes about three quarters of the way into the story, that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are one and the same. It’s still good writing, but from a writer’s perspective, I really would have preferred the book all be in second person perspective even if it ends up giving away the twist much earlier. That’s just my opinion, though, and again, it doesn’t make the book bad. I’m sure most casual readers won’t even notice or care about the disparity of time between the three perspectives, and the twist for them will seem all the more clever for not looking at them like an editor squinting, hunting for cracks to fill in.

Now, I want to talk about the book’s racial message, because it is on point. The reigning rulers are colonizers who have instituted a forced breeding program on orogenes, looking for a blend that is controllable and at the same time powerful. Those who are powerful but impossible to tame are lobotomized and put to work in “nodes” that still quakes through the mind-numbed orogene’s involuntary control of their powers. Those who can handle trauma like having their hands intentionally broken by their handlers are trained in a school where they are basically taught to hate themselves for being evil. Their handlers are possibly another breed of orogenes, but one implanted with a device that allows them to negate the powers or orogenes, rendering them helpless. (At one point, I thought to complain, “And none of these orogenes learned anything like martial arts to turn the tables?” But then I thought on it and realized that of course their masters wouldn’t allow any fighter training. Why would you give your slaves the tools to escape?)

But the real real kicker is the term the stills have for orogenes, and it leapt out at me about the third time it was explained as a slur: rogga. Go on, change the first two letters and go “Ooooh.”

So yeah, this story is talking about race, about how colonization and indoctrination keeps certain races down, and how one day those races might rise up and violently strip the reins of powers away from their masters. The Fifth Season is the start of the revolution, and I don’t know where it goes in the next two books, but I am intrigued enough to find out. Which is why I bought the second book while I was still halfway through the first.

So I return again to the question I posed before: is this worthy of an award? Absolutely it is. If so, why did I drop a star from the rating? It’s a personal nitpick, one born of having to edit stories and being trained to spot little details. For most people, it simply won’t matter, but for me, the constant questions I had about the timeline pulled me out of the story, breaking the immersion for me. So that’s what cost it a star. But it’s still a brilliant book, and I’d highly recommend it to you. I’d say I’m digging into the second right away, but that’s not usually my style. But I do have The Obelisk Gate loaded on my Kindle, and it’s definitely on the TBR list for this year. If you still need more incentives than that to pick it up, I’m sure all the other positive reviews out there can eventually sway you.