Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

Writing Quality: 5/5
Personal Enjoyment: 5/5
Wider Appeal: 5/5

The Fifth Season was the absolute perfect choice for my first read of 2016. It's the most innovative book I've read in a very long time, challenging the genre format and the idea of what fantasy traditionally is. The Fifth Season is not traditional genre formula fantasy.

N. K. Jemisin starts the book with the end of the world. This is already genre-shifting. Because in fantasy, the world doesn't end. That's the point. Someone is chosen to save the world, right? Here, she tells you right at the beginning: this story does not have a happy ending where a chosen one saves everyone from certain death, their loved ones survive, and they get the girl. The world ends. And the main character is a woman, and middle-aged, and a mother, and she has already lost her son.

The world ends, but the world has ended before. The land is rocked by frequent large and small quakes, and its population includes orogenes (aka roggas), people who can sense the vibrations and also control them, stilling or creating earthquakes. I can't tell you too much about the plot without giving it away, because Jemisin weaves tiny surprises throughout the book, slowly peeling away the story bit by bit to show you how characters are connected, and their histories and scars. There is not one big twist, but dozens of tiny ones, and the complexity of this story is absolutely beautiful.

The characters, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, are all roggas of different ages and different stages in life. Damaya is a child, taken from her family to be trained. Syenite is a four-ring orogene who is beginning to realize that she is really just a slave. Essun is a free woman, hunting down her husband after he murdered their son.

I loved so much about this book. The ideas were amazing, and one part in particular was utterly awe-inspiring when I imagined what it looked like (which was easy, given Jemisin's excellent writing). The characters were believable, and it was easy to empathize with them. It was especially easy because Jemisin (again in a very uncommon choice) wrote all of Essun's chapters in second person. I also loved her casual attitude toward gender and sexuality. Gay, bi, straight, trans, poly...It's all here, and while it's commented on, Jemisin writes it in the same way you might write that a character has kinky hair, or they went for a run this morning. It just is, and it's nothing overly special. Why can't more books be like this?

I always end my reviews by telling you what types of readers would particularly enjoy a book, but this one is difficult, because I'm having a hard time pinning down a particular audience to the exclusion of others. This book is for readers who enjoy fantasy in which the magic system is actually an integral part of the story and not just a sideshow, readers who like strong female protagonists who are also realistically flawed (not just clumsy) and complicated, readers who like their books to be multi-racial and/or multi-gendered without making a thing of it, readers who like stories that are so well-constructed that by the end you can practically trace the lines of each moment back to something in the past that caused or influenced it...

If you're reading this review, The Fifth Season is probably for you.

Recommended ages 16+. New York: Orbit, 2015. Print. 498 pages. ISBN: 978-0316229296.

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