Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
I must preface this review with some necessary context about myself, which of course will ramble a fair bit as I often do.
Over the past several years I’ve come to realize that what I write at this blog aren’t really reviews, as my ‘reviews’ often don’t really summarize the books I discuss. Likewise, I’ve never claimed to be a critic, as this certainly isn’t an academic exercise and I (mostly) don’t critically discuss and analyze the text. What I write is both for those who haven’t read the book and for those that have. What I write about is my reaction to books – there may be some summary and there may be discussion on how a book converses with genre and other aspects of the world – but what I do here is express my opinion about the book and how I reacted to it. In short, my writings here (usually) are not conversations with those who have or have not read the book I discuss, but conversations with myself.
So, to aid you in understanding this particular conversation with myself, I will provide some important context. Because this book, more so than most books I read, was very specifically set-up to be a book that I would fall completely in love with or became so annoyed with that I could not tolerate it even a little bit. This is a book that could almost certainly have no middle ground whatsoever. You may be asking yourself why. In a word: geology.
My day job and even where I put a huge amount of volunteer effort, is in geology, specifically engineering geology, but that is neither here nor there. My ‘expertise’ in this world is in applied geology. This is what I do, and since I live in a society that is defined by that career/jobs we are boxed into, in many ways, it is what I am.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is geology applied to epic fantasy in a way I have never seen it before. No, it’s not dinosaurs with people, or clever geologic names, or even a geologically influenced map. The Fifth Season is geology made into epic fantasy, primarily through magic. The magic of this book occurs through people (and other ‘beings’) directly manipulating geologic forces. The world is one in constant geologic upheaval and some people have the power to reduce or enhance these phenomena.
Hopefully, my long preamble is starting show some focus. The Fifth Season would live or die by me on all of the little, tiny details that won’t matter or mean much to 99% of its readers. I suppose, conversely, that means that this review (or reaction?), probably won’t mean much to 99% of those of you out there. But you’ve made it this far, so why not see it through to the end (no worries, I write about much more than just geology)?
Typically when I read fiction, and most of that falls squarely in the greater SFF world, I don’t have much problem with suspending belief. Particularly with geology. I can usually pretty well ignore any issue or inconsistency. It’s not hard – because hey, it’s fantasy. But with The Fifth Season it’s too much in my face – it is geomagic (my word, not Jemisin’s – hers is much cooler). This is the dying earth metaphor in the form of fantastic geology. The folly of humanity, geologic retribution.
So far I’ve laid hints, but not flat-out said which extreme my reaction fall into. So, I’ll say it now – I love this book! The geologic aspects are very well handled – and orogene is an excellent name for a ‘geologic sorcerer’ (for a quick lesson, while it’s not technically a word in English, orogene plays on orogeny, which can mean a lot of things, but at its most basic, it refers to a mountain building event in geologic time). If I tried really hard, I could come up with some nitpicking, but considering that I would have to try so hard in a book that puts geology front and center, well that is an accomplishment. Also joyfully worth noting, geologic names for characters – Syenite, Alabaster, Carnelian, etc. (all are rocks and/or minerals).
OK, I do need to talk about some other aspects of this book. First, I think a lot of people will be talking about this book because there really is a metric shit-ton of interesting stuff in this book (yes, ‘shit-ton’ is a geologic term…at least for me it is). I’ll start with what the book is – the synopsis I read speaks of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic happenings (usually this is an instant no-go for me in a book, but that is another essay altogether). It certainly fits the general idea of epic fantasy – there’s a quest, there’s magic, etc. But what it really fits is the dying earth motif*. Past sins of humanity destroyed the natural order of the world and humanity barely survived. And the cycle of disaster now repeats itself, with humanity ever approaching the point where they don’t survive. Is this the story of the end?
Additionally, the story is told through a beautiful mosaic of diversity. The cast is largely non-white, generally lacking specific analogs to the racial and ethnic breakdown of our world. In addition to a female lead, other descriptors of the major and minor characters include transgender, gay, and bisexual. What’s best is that none of those details matter all that much to the plot. They are simply there because that’s the way it is. Which is the way it should be.
Voice. Voice makes or breaks a work of fiction, and what may be the most significantly interesting characteristic of The Fifth Season is voice. First, there is second, as in second person. This rarely used narrative voice lends both distance and intimacy to the description of the end of the world. Particularly since it’s more than the end of the world, as the voice is that of someone whose world has already ended. There is a journey as a three points of view slowly converge on clarity in the face of chaos. The journey of woman – child to teen/young adult to mother. Conflicts and emotions are different, yet relatable. And the world ends.
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Emotionally and thematically The Fifth Season provides a full plot arc as the first book in a trilogy is supposed to do, if not exactly ending with the triumphant pause in the three-act play of a trilogy. Plot-wise, there’s something of a cliff-hanger that really has me wanting to read the next book now.
I’ve thrown around the term dying earth in this review a few times as it can be a very powerful metaphor for the folly of humanity. In The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog. And this blends well into the tragedy of single human lives that make for such compelling literature. Again, in The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog for that tragedy. The Fifth Season is the story of a dying earth, it is the story of an apocalypse in a world of repeating apocalyptic events, though this just might be the end of it all. It is also the story of very personal journey(s) through a time of upheaval, and one that creates opportunity to relate on many levels. As a mother, as an outcast, as a talented and ambitious professional, as a slave to society. As I say above – choose your own metaphor – Jemisin laid the ground work for at least half a dozen, which opens the door for even more.
The best fantasy does not strive to restore the status quo. It seeks progress, progress that can be ugly…very ugly. In many cultures and traditions death is not the end, but an end. In that end there is the implication for rebirth, the implication of progress along a greater journey. I have a sneaking sense that what Jemisin is doing in The Broken Earth Trilogy is not just the end, but also the beginning of progress toward something more.
So, my own journey with The Fifth Season began with the superficial connection to a single metaphor. Or you could say that it began with the earth (maybe even the Earth). And while I quite clearly reveled in that connection, drilling deeper, to the core of the story kills the connection to the earth. In that death there is the birth of the connection to humanity, which completes the circle for a personal connection.
The Fifth Season is SFF of potential, perhaps the most potential that can be had at this moment in time.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
*It’s worth noting that Jemisin has said that the Stillness of the The Broken Earth Trilogy is not Earth and was never intended to be Earth. It is a secondary world, though I stand by my assertion that at least in the case of The Fifth Season, there is far more kinship to Dying Earth motifs than the dime-a-dozen post-apocalyptic SFF series plaguing genre these days.