September 26, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read any of N.K. Jemisin's work before, but now I'll start collecting her books.

This book is fantastic. I'll get that out of the way right now; it's one of the best I've read this year. It's a very dense book, in plot and character, worldbuilding and writing, and it would definitely reward multiple reads. (In fact, as I was going through it, and peeling back one more layer of the onion Jemisin has so expertly constructed, I found myself returning to the prologue and rereading it, and picking up on the nuances I couldn't understand before. Which I did again just now, after finishing the book. Unfortunately, I have to return this copy to the library, but I'll get my own soon enough.) What I find interesting is that it's being marketed as fantasy, and to me, it's really not. This is not to say I disdain fantasy; I loved Naomi Novik's Uprooted, after all. But this book, while it might have some nominal fantasy trappings, has a very strong science-fiction undertone. Just as an example, the inhabitants of Jemisin's world understand the theory of plate tectonics, the cities have electricity generated by geothermal and/or hydroelectric means, and they also possess the ability to build massive floating (possibly using anti-grav?) crystal obelisks--the purpose of which isn't hinted at until the very last line of the book! (Talk about a cliff-hanger. I immediately went to Amazon to see if I could pre-order the next book, which isn't even finished yet.)

The structure of this book is complex. There are three distinct storylines, and alternating chapters following what you at first believe are three characters--but you gradually realize this is the story of one woman, told at three different times in her life. The oldest version of the protagonist is named Essun, and her chapters are written in second person, present tense. (I've written a story in second person. It's not easy; that sort of narrative is distancing and suffocatingly close all at the same time, and the writer has to make the "you" into a distinct character. Jemisin does this very well.) The earlier versions of Essun, under different names, are written in third person, present tense. Fortunately, the chapter headings make clear which character we'll be focusing on. All this juggling of storylines may sound a bit precious, but it's absolutely necessary to the plot; we have to see why and how Essun has become the person she is, to understand the choices she makes.

The worldbuilding is equally impressive. I've come to the conclusion that, for me, world-building is one of the most important parts of an SFF book; if I can't believe in the world presented, if it doesn't make sense, I get thrown right out of the narrative (and the book tends to hit the wall). Jemisin's world has the weight of thousands of years of history and geology, and carries that weight very well. There are no infodumps. The history/geology is woven in with rare skill, and the story never drags. There are two appendices at the back of the book--a timeline and glossary of terms--that help explain things, which I appreciated, but most readers will be able to follow along anyway. The prose is crisp and clean and deceptively simple, and when Jemisin hits an action sequence, it's like a knockout punch.

This is a very dark story, however, so be warned. The characters never seem to catch a break. There are themes of prejudice and hatred, and a society that oppresses the very people it needs for its survival. There are important questions asked as to how far a person will go to accept something that they know is not right, if they believe accepting the wrong is necessary for their survival, and how and when they will finally break free. Essun is asking those questions, and is on the verge of breaking free, and I can't wait to see what she does next.

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