Hugo Nominees 2016: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin


Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.

According to the official summary, The Fifth Season is about a woman searching for her daughter in a post-apocalyptic world. Technically, that's true. But it doesn't really capture the essence of the book.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that faces apocalyptic geological events, called Fifth Seasons, fairly frequently. Everything in society is built around preventing a Season, if they possibly can, or else surviving one if it comes along. The world also has magic users, called Orogenes, who are feared and hated for their ability to control the forces of the earth -- or to kill people, if they use their power untrained. They work to prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other potentially Season-causing catastrophes, but society despises them none-the-less.

The novel has three orogene protagonists. There's a young girl, Damaya, whose parents just discovered she is an orogene. There's a young woman, Syenite, who is trying to climb to the top of the orogene ranks and has just been sent on a seemingly run-of-the-mill mission with her new mentor. And there's Essen, a middle-aged woman living in hiding whose husband just murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter after realizing that they were orogenes.

The first thing to note is that NK Jemisin has an amazing writing style. It's vivid and engaging, and often invokes a sense of oral storytelling, reflecting the story's preoccupation with the problems of recorded history and lore. She writes in third person for Damaya and Syenite, but uses second person for Essen, forcing the reader to meld with her character. This doesn't mean that Essen lacks personality -- far from it -- but it pulls the reader 100% into her perspective, which is especially powerful considering how atypical Essen is as a fantasy protagonist. She's a dark-skinned middle-aged woman, and the reader cannot escape empathizing with her.

The Fifth Season is also the sort of book that you feel like you're unravelling as you go along, trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together. When are the three protagonists' stories happening, relative to each other? How are their stories connected? The novel opens with a figure choosing to destroy the world, but who is it, why did they want to do that, how did they do it? What is this world we're thrown into, and how does it work? It's the sort of novel that you want to start rereading the moment you finish it, just to see all the things you missed and how it all fit together.

Sometimes, though, the book feels more like a puzzle than a story. Each protagonist has their own plotline, but most of my engagement with the book came from trying to figure out all of its secrets and see how the different stories all fit together. It does deliver on most of these promises, but it causes a slight problem in pacing. I figured out the answers to most of the puzzles at just the right time, usually maybe one chapter ahead of when it was confirmed, so that element of pacing was good, but sometimes I found myself wondering how the random plot threads were connected to the main story of the apocalypse. SPOILERS (highlight to read): Of course, the revelation that all three protagonists are the same person explains some of this, but doesn't really fix the reading experience itself. I wondered how life on a pirate island was connected to the apocalypse, for example, and it wasn't, really, beyond the impact it had on Essen and Alabaster. It made me lose some of my engagement with the novel toward the end.

Despite its official description, The Fifth Season is not really apocalyptic fiction. It's a story about orogenes, which means that it's a story about freedom, power, and slavery. Orogenes who are deemed controllable are taken to the Fulcrum, where they are trained to be useful, and to obey their Guardians without question. They are the monsters, they're told, and they must be controlled. Through the novel, we see the story of one girl who is being pulled into this world, and who is made to believe that embracing it is the only way she can be loved and safe, side-by-side with the story of the young woman who is gradually starting to question this world and how it treats her, after growing up wanting to play by its rules to succeed. And it's all capped by that official summary story, of the older woman who tried to run away and hide from the whole system, but who is being crushed by it anyway.

Mixed in with these intense themes is an interest in history and stories -- what people tell you, what's been forgotten, and what actually happened. In particular, the book is concerned with the story of a particularly evil orogene who slaughtered everyone in their path and was defeated by a noble hero who became the first Guardian. We're first introduced to this tale through Damaya, who is told it as her new Guardian breaks her hand to teach her that she is potentially a villain and she must therefore obey at all costs. It's a shocking scene, the first sign that the apparently nice Guardian isn't so wonderful after all, and its implications resonate through the rest of the novel.

As The Fifth Season is set in a society where darker skin is the default, it's definitely an extremely diverse book by typical fantasy standards. It's also an intersectional book, with a trans character, gay characters... basically all the people left out of typical sci-fi/fantasy and apocalypse narratives.

Because of its structure, The Fifth Season feels very much like it should be a standalone book. I forgot, as I was reading, that it was the first in a trilogy, and the lies of my kindle page count (thanks, free sample and appendices!) made me extra surprised to turn the page on a certain line and realized I'd reached the end. But it feels so much like a standalone novel that at first I tried to reconcile the final line as a kind of open-ended conclusion, until I looked it up and found out there are going to be two more books.

One problem with the first book in a trilogy is that it's hard to tell what was left out on purpose for later, and what was just confusing or incomplete. In particular, I was left wondering pretty much everything about stone-eaters and how they fit into the world. And what were those obelisks? What did happen at Allia? Lots of points confused me, and I can't tell, as yet, whether everything will be explained later, or whether the book was unintentionally unclear.

Still, The Fifth Season is a really inventive, well-written and powerful book. I found my attention wandering slightly at the end, but overall, it's a solid and refreshing story. I'm not sure where I'm going to place it against Uprooted and the other books on the ballot I've yet to read, but it's definitely worth giving a read.