N. K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

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I’ve worn my geek identity as a badge of honour for quite a while and had someone asked, I would’ve cited science fiction and fantasy as some of my favourite genres. However, I would’ve had very little evidence to back up that statement. Aside from being a devout lover of The Lord of the Rings and having an almost built-in fondness for other such childhood classics as the Harry Potter and Narnia series, for many years of my adolescence and early adulthood I didn’t really read all that much speculative fiction. Or if I did, it was through a YA filter, as for many years YA dystopias were my primary connection to the scifi genre. Which is fine, YA dystopias rule… occasionally. And while the legitimacy and merit of YA fiction is the hill I will gladly die on, I am also willing to admit that it has somewhat deteriorated my ability and motivation to focus on longer and more complicated books. And regardless of the YA factor, I have always been a slightly impatient reader, which means that getting immersed in complicated fantasy or science fiction worlds with unfamiliar cultures and vocabulary has historically caused me to put off reading some heavier works of speculative fiction.

It hasn’t been by design, but this year has seen a significant increase in my speculative fiction consumption thanks to a fantastic gateway drug – novellas! Thanks to the terrific ebook collections provided by my library, this year I have gained access to such great works as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti and Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series, which have helped fuel my love for genre fiction without the pressure of having to wade through hundreds upon hundreds of pages of complex worldbuilding – as wondrous as that can be. It also helps that some of the longer works of speculative fiction I have braved this year – most notably An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon – have been PHENOMENAL.

The final step in my indoctrination was N. K. Jemisin’s collection of short stories called How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, which I picked up on my trip to Stockholm in February. I hadn’t read Jemisin before, but I had heard great things, and the short story collection seemed like a good place to start. I am about halfway through, because taking in so many new settings and worlds one after the other in a short period of time is quite exhausting, but what I’ve read so far managed to convince me of Jemisin’s brilliance, which led me to pick up The Fifth Season from the library when I happened upon it in the returns shelf. Which brings us, finally, to the book itself. (God, my introductory rambles are getting worse than those in recipe blogs!)

I am, as always, terrible at synopses, and describing the plot of The Fifth Season accurately without spoilers is challenging, but here is a brief and spoiler-free sketch of the plot and setting. The Fifth Season is a post-apocalyptic story – or rather a post-various-apocalypses story. In fact, it begins with the world ending – yet again. It is the story of the continent of Stillness, periodically wrecked by catastrophic changes in the climate, referred to as the Fifth Season. It is the story of orogenes, people with the ability to manipulate and draw energy from the ground, for example cause or quell earthquakes. It is also a story about oppression. The Fifth Season follows three narrative threads through three different points of view: Essun, a woman on the hunt for his husband who murdered their son for being an orogene; Syenite, a talented and ambitious orogene sent on a brutal mission; and Damaya, a child given away by her family to be trained and shaped into a useful cog in the society’s machine. It’s also a story about many more things but I’ll leave those for you to discover should you be so inclined. The less you know the more fun you’ll have, I promise.

I began The Fifth Season in a mindset of utmost determination, which turned out to be somewhat necessary. The book was due to be returned to the library in a week and I was loath to return it unread or unfinished, so I started with the resolve to power through it in time no matter what. Perhaps not the mindset most conducive to a pleasurable reading experience, but in this case it worked in my favour. It was that determination and my rock-solid (pun intended?) faith in Jemisin’s abilities as a storyteller that got me through the first hundred-and-some pages, which otherwise may have proven fatal to my motivation. Not because the story was bad – the opening was very strong and I was invested from the beginning – but exactly because of my difficulties with immersion in the face of complex worldbuilding. I admit I felt lost on more than a few occasions in the first, say, third of the book, and it took the conscious resolve to be okay with a little confusion and not knowing exactly what was going on to carry me through it. I feel like that is the best testament to just how much I like Jemisin’s works, though. I never lost my faith in her ability to weave the various plot threads into a satisfying whole, and my faith was well rewarded. The timeline in particular caused some head scratching early on – so much so that I turned to Google and almost ruined the fun by looking up a synopsis – but I eventually resigned myself to just going with the flow and waiting for it to start making sense, and when it did start making sense I was SO GLAD I powered through.

N. K. Jemisin is a masterful writer. Lately I have grown very tired of the trend in TV shows in particular that seems to have replaced plot with plot twists and that prioritises shock value over character development. It’s boring and it underestimates the viewer. So it was a breath of fresh air to read a story where the twists were genuinely surprising – to me, at least, but I could just be that dumb! – but when they occurred my reaction was first “WHAT!” but then “OF COURSE!” (out loud, with gestures, naturally) because suddenly everything made sense and it was this twisted satisfaction to have been so wrong but to finally have a piece of the puzzle fall into place. What’s even more amazing is that Jemisin pulled this off way more than once. Being fooled has never felt so good.

boo boo the fool

Me, having for one second thought I was ahead of the curve and knew what Jemisin would do next.

Jemisin has this amazing ability to make me feel simultaneously smart for noticing the little hints she sometimes drops, and yet a complete fool for not seeing the big picture before she deigns to reveal it to me. For me, at least, that made this a very fun reading experience in the end. You start to wonder how she could possibly manage to bring these very separate plot lines together in any sort of satisfactory way, and then she does and you see it could never have been any other way. Sheer brilliance.

While the initial effort of acclimating to a very strange world with a heap of unfamiliar terminology and cultural concepts was a bit of a struggle, once I found my footing in the story’s universe, Jemisin’s worldbuilding became an architectural marvel to behold. She is excellent at giving you just the right amount of information at just the right time to keep things interesting and make you question your assumptions about the world and its characters. And when the subtle hints of science fiction start seeping into the fantasy world, it’s like of course, this makes perfect sense!

I think I’ll stop before a vein of excitement bursts in my head and I start spilling spoilers left and right. But I’ll say one more thing: Jemisin actually managed to make me enjoy second person narration! And that is possibly the highest praise of someone’s writing I could possibly give.

Tl;dr: GO READ THE FIFTH SEASON. OR ANYTHING BY N. K. JEMISIN, REALLY. And join me in the excitement pit while I wait for my copy of The Obelisk Gate to arrive!

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