Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review - The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin


Short review: The end of the world has come, and Essun sets off to find her kidnapped daughter amidst the chaos.

Haiku
Roggas are despised
But they still serve the Fulcrum
Until one doesn't

Full review: There is a vague and indistinct region in between the genres of fantasy and science fiction. While some books rest comfortably on one side of this division or the other, others are happy to rest in that ambiguous zone between them, maybe from some angles a work of fantasy, and from others a work of science fiction. The Fifth Season is one of those books, with elements that make one think that the story is a pure fantasy, and others that are squarely within the realm of science fiction. Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves a brutal story of enslavement, oppression, and anger that is at once intensely personal and breathtaking in its scope.

At the outset, I will say that this book is an extremely difficult book to review. This is because one of the elements that makes this book so good is the structure of the novel, and how that structure is used to tell the story. Unfortunately, revealing exactly how the structure of the novel works to elevate this book well above the ordinary would serve to ruin it for anyone who has not read it. So instead, one must write around what can only be called the central genius of The Fifth Season, which makes trying the discuss the brilliance of the book something of a frustrating experience.

The story is told from three distinct viewpoints: Essun, an older woman who must deal with the death of her son and the abduction of her daughter, Damaya, a young girl ostracized by her home community for her powers over the Earth who is taken in by the Fulcrum, a mysterious order comprised of such gifted individuals, and Syenite, a young woman of the Fulcrum, fully trained in the ways of "orogeny", and on an assignment to prove her worth, actually a dual assignment, the full measure of which result in some rather startling revelations about the world and society in which she lives. Though these three stories are separate, they eventually link together into a coherent whole, and the way in which Jemisin does this is a masterful example of skillful writing. Each of the three viewpoint characters adds something to the whole, allowing Jemisin to both give the reader an increasingly clear window through which to see the fictional world she has created and three simply devastating personal journeys.

The skill of orogeny, is one of the cornerstones of the science fiction in the book. In a nutshell, orogeny is the ability to "feel" the Earth's changes, and also to draw upon its power to manipulate it as well. From a certain perspective, one could call orogeny "Earth magic", and that is how those who don't have the skill seem to view it. Those who have ability with orogeny are called "orogenes" or, if one is intending to be insulting "roggas", and despite their power, they are feared and despised as dangerous and unstable elements within what passes for society in the book. Where orogeny comes from and how it works is not explained, just that it does. At several points it is asserted that orogeny is an inherited quality, and this does seem to be borne out somewhat by the abilities of the characters in the book, but like so many of the other assertions made by characters in the book, it is unclear if this is actually true, or merely folk wisdom and confirmation bias.

Another cornerstone of the book is the world itself. All of the events in the book take place on or around "the Stillness", a massive continent that stretches pole to pole that is anything but still. In fact, the geological instability of the Earth is the defining feature of Jemisin's imagined world and drives almost every other element. With an unpredictable and oftentimes hostile world under their feet, the society in which the characters live is almost relentlessly bleak and depressing. Virtually everything about the society is driven by the need to survive the deprivations of the periodic "Fifth Seasons" of extended winter that are triggered by unexpected seismic activity or other environmental changes. This has resulted in a "civilization" that has had almost everything that makes for a civilized life stripped away. People are categorized into castes based upon what utilitarian role they will play during a fifth season. Communities (called "Comms" in the book) all follow the rigid and harsh dictates of "Stonelore" that direct, sometimes in exacting detail, how such communities are to behave during times of crisis. The society that has evolved in the face of repeated global disaster is ruthlessly utilitarian and cruel.

Jemisin populates this harsh environment with suitably hardened characters, which some people have found to be off-putting. In the context of the story, however, almost anything else would have rung false. Essun is angry and enraged because the world she lives in is fundamentally callous and unfair. Syanite's story opens her eyes to the true injustice that forms the foundations of the society she works within and serves. Damaya's story shows how she is indoctrinated into believing that slavery is the natural and expected way of life, and that cruelty is love. These three stories are melded together to tell a unified tale, interacting in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. As an example, when Syenite discovers exactly who the node maintainers are, and the conditions under which they perform, this account is intertwined with Damaya dealing with being bullied by some particularly difficult trouble-making classmates, and the resulting punishment that is meted out by the Fulcrum's instructors. Told separately, these stories would be interesting interludes. Told together, they amount to a brutally effective tale of horror and misery.

The Fifth Season is both a brilliant and difficult book. Jemisin's writing is intense and gripping, and the world she has created is a thing of stark beauty, while the characters who inhabit it are extremely well-crafted and interesting. But the very effectiveness of Jemisin's writing is what makes the book such a tough read, as it makes the truly cruel and bleak nature of her fictional world feel so very real. This harshness makes the book demanding, but anything less would make the book feel superficial and false. In the end, reading this book is a harrowing and sometimes painful experience, but also one that is incredibly rewarding and well-worth doing.

Subsequent book in the series: The Obelisk Gate

2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2016 Hugo Award Finalists
2016 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Nebula Award Nominees

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6 comments:

  1. Great review. You get at the heart of things without being too spoilery.

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    1. @Tasha: Thank you. This took a while to write just to achieve that balance.

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  2. Psst, Aaron, I think you've got your terms wrong....it's "orogenes" and "orogeny," not "oregones."

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  3. It sounds as intense as you've described. Looks epic!

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    1. @fredamans: It is as close to a "must read" for a science fiction fan as I think a book can get.

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