Book Review: The Fifth Season

Book Review: The Fifth Season

I don't always read Hugo award winners, but when I do...I usually really like them.

I keep an eye on the Hugos every year. Drama notwithstanding, I tend to pick up one or two of the nominees afterward. This year, after NK Jemisin won for The Fifth Season, I picked it up in my local Barnes & Noble, read the back, bought it on the spot, skipped it to the front of the reading queue and then tore through it in two days.

And when I put it down, I immediately went to buy its sequel, which fortunately had just come out. So that ought to tell you the quality we're talking.

The Fifth Season is set in a world where the earth itself is the enemy. Earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters are common and frequently threatened to wipe out human civilization (ushering in the so-called "Seasons"). The only people who can prevent these disasters are orogenes, magicians of a sort who can sense and use the earth's energy - yet these people are also feared outcasts, often killed before they can be trained.

The story follows three women in different stages of life, all orogenes: the young Damaya, just beginning her training; Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained orogene on a mission, and the enigmatic Essun, a mother whose son has just been killed and her daughter kidnapped by her husband. And then an earthquake tears through the land that could mean the end for humanity...

Here's a basic primer on why you should read this book:

It's unique. The main characters are all women of color, and that's awesome. We need more of that in "mainstream" fantasy. She writes Essun's chapters in second person POV, which is rare and overall works pretty well for her (it can be jarring initially, but I found that I had adjusted by the second Essun chapter). And her world is breathtaking. I've never seen anything quite like it in all my years reading fantasy. She's invented a wholly new system of magic that fits her setting like a glove.

It's powerful. So many feels while reading this book. It tugs on your heart strings repeatedly. Her characters are detailed and believable, and their decisions can have such outsized consequences because of their power, all of which just deepens the impact the book makes on the reader. Additionally, Jemisin's creation and treatment of the orogene class is brutal and so well-written know, I really don't have words for it.

It's mysterious. This book raises so many questions it doesn't answer, and it will make you hungry for the next one. That's the goal of the initial book of any series, and Jemisin pulls it off with incredible zeal. I spent a lot of the time I wasn't able to read puzzling away at the mysterious obelisks in the sky, or what the Guardians are, or how the powerful orogenes could have become essentially a slave class.

It's beautiful. Jemisin's prose is A grade, and I found myself re-reading sections just because I liked how they sounded. I've never read any of her work prior to this series, so I can't say how typical this is of her writing, but it's quite excellent. I got the very strong feeling that each word was chosen meticulously and because it was the perfect, best word - and while that's certainly what most authors strive for, it's an effect that rarely comes through as clearly as it did in The Fifth Season.

The only quibble I have, and it is a rather tiny quibble, is that I felt like the plot dragged a bit in places. Not often, but occasionally. She had a lot of heavy lifting to do establishing the world and the characters, and the story occasionally caves under the weight.

Long story short, read this book. It more than deserves the Hugo Award it won, and I can't applaud Jemisin enough for her work. She's been added to my list of authors to watch, near the very top.

Grade: 4.85 / 5

Memorable Quote

You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapor that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines.
— The Fifth Season, pg. 143
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