Everything changes in a Season. First guard the gates. Keep storecaches clean and dry. Obey the stonelore, make the hard choices, and maybe when the Season ends there will be people who remember how civilisation should work. Or maybe not. Not this Season.
I don’t always agree with hype and I don’t consider a Hugo a guarantee I’ll enjoy (or even rate) something. So let me go on record now: I’ll read anything N K Jemisin writes in future on the strength of The Fifth Season. Every accolade it has received is well-deserved; it is staggeringly good in every way.
The Fifth Season is a masterclass in world-building – even as it rips its own world apart – layered with compelling characters, central mysteries, a mercilessly clear-sighted take on privilege and prejudice, and a tone that shifts seamlessly from cheeky to eviscerating without skipping a beat.
The book is told from three points of view: a young girl, taken by the Fulcrum for her own safety and to secure the world (at least, this is their version of the truth); an ambitious young operative of the Fulcrum sent on a mission with ones of its maddest and best (he will change her perspective on the world); and a grieving mother whose husband has murdered their son as the world begins to burn (told in an on-point, intrusive second person narration; I am a sucker for this done well, and here it is done very, very well).
One of the questions for me was the timeframe of each of these narratives and how they would relate to one another; but each engaged me and enraged me as they explore the different ways in which the world treats the people known as orogenes.
Orogenes – derogatorily known as roggas – are people considered to pose a threat to the world. People who can draw heat and energy from the world around them and use it to still earthquakes or create volcanoes. People who may inadvertently kill those around them in so doing, literally freezing them in their tracks long before the violent consequences of moving the earth destroys them.
We see the world from the point of view of the orogenes, so its impossible not to sympathise with their position. Damaya’s mother tell herself she loves her daughter because she hasn’t killed her for what she is, but she has treated her with nothing but neglect and cruelty. A rogga doesn’t need a winter coat, or a bed in a house. A rogga can be starved and beaten. A rogga can’t be trusted. Yet the woman knows she’s wrong: her shame is undeniable when she’s confronted with her actions, but she is well-armoured in the excuses she has made to herself.
This is how people are made less than human; this is how they are treated when that is normal. And even within the world-building, it’s made clear to us that the social conditioning and the way orogenes are trained to accept their position in the world (in the Fulcrum, or dead) is all open-eyed oppression, a deliberate stripping of humanity to control a force that the dominant society is afraid of, but can use.
It is a narrative that makes me incandescent with rage, because it’s so fucking familiar. The Fifth Season is one of those books that confronts me with how I feel about the imbalances of our own world. As such, it’s not a relaxing read – this is an emotional rollercoaster on every level, angry and raw, and I have nothing but respect for how Jemisin pulls it together.
Nobody deserves to die for dreaming of a future
Along the way she tackles multiple forms of abuse – thankfully with more nuance and more care than in The Shadowed Sun – including a long, cold look at the full institutional horror of the Fulcrum. And yet somewhere along the way, The Fifth Season finds – no, makes – time to celebrate love of many shades, including found family (always a favourite of mine).
Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? It’s a genre-busting apocalypse novel of impossible powers, a shattered moon, forgotten technologies and flushing toilets (until the world ends, at least). I have no idea where you shelve it other than under awesome and epic.
Now excuse me, I have a sequel I need to devour.