The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a novel outside my comfort zone—speculative fiction not being a genre I gravitate towards, at all. That being said, bear with me as I try to express myself while wrapping my head around this book, and my feelings toward it. I generally don’t like to include too much plot review, but this is the type of read that has an appendix and glossary, so some summarizing won’t hurt.
Let’s start with a cliché: The Fifth Season opens with a bang. Or more accurately, it begins with a tear in the earth which is the catalyst for the end of the world. Yep, on like page 2. Then the story unfolds with the perspectives of three narrators: Essun, Damaya, and Syenite. All are humans with the ability to control earth shakes, by manipulating different kinds of energy. They’re called Oregenes. Yes, this book is more than a little nerdy, and requires some pretty in-depth mental imagery, or at least it did for me.
As the story unfolds, alternating from these three perspectives, N.K. Jemisin builds a spectacular world around a magnificent and horrific history that ultimately shapes the characters and leads to their world changing actions. You see, there’s a hierarchy in The Stillness, this world’s sole continent. A rigid and cruel social structure created to ensure the survival of the species during each Fifth Season (a long winter triggered by a seismic event). The Oregenes are the ones who can stabilize shakes and save cities. They are the ones with the power to save the world, and they are treated with fear and cruelty, held at the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Oregenes are mercilessly controlled by Guardians. The Guardians are Stills (humans without power), who have ways to nullify an Oregene’s powers.
Essun, Damaya, and Syenite are Oregenes, and The Fifth Season is the story of their lives up to the apocalyptic event. Essun is a mother whose son is murdered after his powers are revealed. Damaya is a girl ostracized by her family and voluntarily given to a Guardian to be controlled. Syenite is a skilled Oregene ordered to be mentored by another, both forced to do unthinkable acts against their will.
This book is a revelation. For a reader, like myself, who mainly reads contemporary fiction, it’s an unbelievable experience. The writing is superb, the creativity in abundance. I’m more than in awe of N.K. Jemisin and what her brain can conjure. More than that, I’m more impressed with what she was able to make *my* brain conjure. The Fifth Season is the kind of read that makes you think, think, think. You think of possibilities bigger than the world we live in. But more importantly, you think of the dynamics of this flawed world that we live in, our past, our future, and whether we ourselves are bound to repeat destructive paths. Will we ever learn?
The Fifth Season was a great escape for me, even if it was a harsh and heartbreaking escape. It made me better, a better person and a better reader. I had to stretch to accommodate it, and I think it pulled me to a point where I can’t go back to my former shape. I’m not complaining. This riveting novel held me captive for as long as I was able to handle it, and even when I took a break from it, it was always on my mind. It made me rage, it made me cry, and in the end it made me hope. It’s book one in a trilogy, and I’ve already got the second on order. I’m so glad that I gave this book a chance, as it might make a fantasy reader out of me yet. I’m not going to be trite and say it’s one everyone will love, because it’s not. It’s not an easy read if you’re not used to the genre, but I will urge anyone who is curious enough to try new things to try this if you feel like dipping your toe in this genre. Just know that it’s only a few steps before you’re it engulfs you. I loved it. It’s a brilliant book by a talented writer whose message, I believe, transcends genre.
THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. FOR THE LAST TIME.
A season of endings has begun. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, from which enough ash spews to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.
It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
And it ends with you. You are the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where orogenes wield the power of the earth as a weapon and are feared far more than the long cold night. And you will have no mercy.