Author: N.K. Jemisin
Published: August 4, 2015
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Fantasy | 449 pages | published by Orbit
Update: The Fifth Season won Best Novel at the Hug Awards!
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was nominated for a 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It did not win, but is certainly worthy of that honor. This novel is the first in a trilogy that introduces us to a land called The Stillness, which has a fascinating and complex history. I am eager to explore this world further in the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, out in August 2016!
Before I can even begin to talk about this book, you will need some context or it won’t make any sense.
Please bear with me because I am about to do a major information dump. Read on if you’re interested in finding your new favorite fantasy novel. If not, skip to the end to read my generic and excessive praise for this incredible work.
A Fifth Season is a very long winter that lasts at least six months (sometimes far longer), which is triggered by seismic activity or other large-scale environmental activity (volcanic, atmospheric, geomagnetic). Any environmental, world-altering disaster is called a Season, but A Fifth Season is the worst kind of disaster. These geographical upheavals have happened for thousands of years, and society has adapted to surviving these apocalypses. So much so that certain physical attributes (e.g. thick, kinky hair and a stocky build) are preferred, and sometimes selected for, to ensure survival.
The drama centers around orogenes, people who have “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” Basically they can manipulate the earth, rocks, minerals, and thermal energy to do really cool things such as lessen the intensity of earthquakes and erect giant stalagmites out of the ground. This ability is never referred to as magic; rather, it is part of the world’s laws of physics. But despite this skill being inherent and natural, people who lack the ability, referred to as “stills,” are the majority of the population and they fear and hate orogenes.
Now that I’ve established what Seasons and orogenes are, I want to talk about one specific Season and orogene.
The novel opens with a mysterious figure (an orogene) causing a massive rip in the continent and thus starting the end of the world. Again, as the book blurb states. So from the outset, we see the events that would bring about a new Fifth Season, not yet named.
But then the perspective switches to the central character of the story, Essun, a local teacher living in the small comm (term for town in this world) of Tirimo. She is an orogene, but has hidden her abilities and former life from everyone because orogenes are deeply feared. The massive rip in the continent mentioned in the last paragraph causes intense earthquakes that are a disastrous to every community in the area. Essun and her son Uche are both oregenes, and thus react instinctively to protect Tirimo. Unfortunately, this exposes them as “roggas” (the derogatory term for orogene) and the entire town turns against them. “Roggas” are not seen as human by people who lack the skill of orogeny, so much so that they are not classified as human by the Empire. The hate is so entrenched in the society that Essun’s husband kills their son, Uche, because he’s an orogene…
That is all revealed in the first 10 pages. This book is a dark, heavy fantasy. There is little joy to be found in the The Stillness, so readers who prefer lighthearted stories will be turned off by many aspects of The Fifth Season. But those who can appreciate a rich and nuanced world with a deep history — and who take the time to read the two glossaries in the back to better understand that world — will be deeply rewarded.
The story is told from the perspectives of three different point-of-view characters, but I have not talked about the other two (Damaya and Syen) because their identities and how their stories intersect with Essun’s are some of the most interesting aspects of the novel. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so all I will say is that the mystery surrounding their identities creates an air of suspense that culminates in a satisfying epiphany for those observant enough to catch the hints.
Information dump over.
N.K. Jemisin is one of the most fascinating and refreshing voices in Speculative Fiction. We need more writers like her in the genre. She’s fearless in her willingness to experiment and diverge from typical fantasy conventions. The Fifth Season is my introduction to her work and I have been thoroughly impressed. I wish I could help you understand how incredibly unique this story is in one review, but I would probably confuse you to death. However, if you’re in the mood for a fantasy epic centered around women who are multifaceted yet believably human in their depiction, this is the book for you.
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