Monday, August 6, 2018

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

Hi, I'm Voss and I am always behind the times when it comes to media. Like, always. I only started watching Supernatural this year. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower about, oh, ten years after it first got onto my radar. And let's not even talk about me and music. My most listened to station on Pandora is 90's Country. If I want to push my boundaries, I hit up 2000's Country.

I'm behind on media is the point. So of course I only just got around to reading N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season. Now, I was at the Worldcon where the whole Sad/Rabid puppies bullshit went down (Or at least where it came to a head.), so Jemisin and her work were on my radar already. But I just never picked it up. I was too busy re-re-re-re-re-reading Harry Potter and The Cyberiad. Very important work.

Now, I'm picky. I'm a super picky reader. I'm not the kind of reader who subscribe to the "I'll give it a chapter" mentality of picking a book. I give books a page. I know that I'm probably missing out on some good books by doing that…but honestly? I don't want to read good books. I want to read amazing books. And while I can't always quantify what it is about that first page that turns me away or keeps me reading, but I've always just judged that quickly on whether a book is going to hold me.

Also, I don't love high fantasy. I don't. I think when it's done well, it can be incredibly strong, but I see a lot of the same issues repeated in high fantasy/alternate world fantasy that I just can't get behind. I'm tired of pseudo-medieval Anglo-Saxon settings. I'm tired of seeing the same archetypes that you find in every beginning D and D session adventuring through the world. I'm also super fucking tired of this oddly jagged writing style you see in a scary amount of high fantasy. It doesn’t flow. It's not natural. I'm super guilty of it, the few times I've tried my hand at high fantasy, and it's honestly why I don't write it much. And when I do, it's hard work.

All of that, every bit of that 350 word spiel, is building to this point: I loved The Fifth Season. I loved it so much. It surprised me, and you might put together that surprising a writer with your writing is not an easy thing, most of the time. Authors are rarely taken unawares by plot and story progression. More often than not, we see exactly what you're doing, there. But Jemisin threw me, and not only that, she threw me in ways that I knew, in retrospect, I should have put together.

At this point, we're going to be getting into spoiler territory for The Fifth Season. Spoiler warning, spoiler warning, spoiler warning. There, I gave you four of them. Listen to whichever one you want, because I don't review without spoilers. Sorry.

The Fifth Season immediately opens with something different, something steeped in voice. And I can't stress the importance of voice in reading enough. "Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we?" Immediately, I'm interested. Immediately, you learn so god damn much. You get an idea of how this book is going to read. You learn early on that time isn't exactly a meaningful concept within these pages. It's certainly not a singular linear pathway. And you understand from this line, and the rest of the prologue, that the world we're stepping into isn't a super hospitable one. It's a dangerous place to exist.

And the writing on a mechanical level also lends to the intentionally disjointed, unstable feeling of the world. The Stillness is, ironically, not still at all. It's plagued by constant seismic activity that has to be stilled by the inborn magic of orogeny in certain people. And the writing switches back and forth—hold onto something, because the reaction to this is never good—between close third person and second person POVs. And yeah, if you'd suggested to me that a book like that could be good? I would have rolled my eyes and humored you while walking away.

But it works. Damn it all, it works when it's done here. Essun is all told in second person. You are Essun. You are learning about yourself. You are uncovering your own secrets as you read. Damaya and Syenite are both close third person. You're seeing their story unfold, and with the way this is written, it's perfect. It's beyond perfect. It's the only way it could have made sense.

Okay, I did give spoiler warnings, but I am going to give you a fifth one, because this is a big part of the book. This is the twist at the end. Are you warned? Are you feeling prepared? Okay.

There are three characters…but there is also only one. Essun talks throughout her chapters about changing who she is, becoming someone else. She's clearly changed her identity before, and Essun isn't her original identity. I kept wondering how Damaya, Syenite, and Essun would be brought together. Then she revealed that Damaya chose the name Syenite when she became a proper orogene.

I should have put the rest together at that point, but I didn't. I assumed the book would end with Syenite and Essun meeting up. They didn't have to, because after she stopped being Syenite, she started being Essun. It's all one character. Essun is written in second person because it's direct. Those other people with other stories? They are, for means of Essun's own survival, other people. They are no, and cannot be, her. If they were her, then she would be killed. Probably brutally killed. So she is no one but Essun. That's why it's structured the way it is, and it's beautiful.

The Fifth Season also shoots wide and away from my problems with high fantasy. This is not Anglo-Saxon. It's set somewhere equatorial, with a mostly black cast of characters. It instantly shifts the feeling of the book. The described beauty standards aren't written through a European gaze. The senses of loyalty, cooperation, etc are all shifted just slightly off from what's expected. It sounds like it shouldn't make much of a difference, but it does. It makes a huge, sweeping difference, and I honestly think that's part of what makes it feel like a new world. The Stillness feels like it's different than our world, and that immediately helps sell the fantasy for me. Just a tiny shift away from what's expected, like the little slips of a fault line, changes everything.

It doesn't stop with the worldbuilding though. I can absolutely see why the Sad/Rabid Puppies hated this book. They're wrong, and they're bigoted, but I see why it wouldn't appeal to them. Jemisin creates a world of casual diversity. Female black MC. Most powerful character in the whole world? An older black gay man. There's a casual mention of a transwoman, and also god damn HRT in a fantasy world. The Fifth Season is a place where diversity can live. And no, The Stillness is not a place that encourages differences. They're not supposed to be. The government in charge (The Fulcrum, the Sanzed, and Yumenes) hates difference, hates change. But they're not the good guys.

So a chill black female main character, who ends up in a three way relationship with a gay man and a bisexual man, and who travels with a pseudo-adopted son and a transwoman from noble blood? Yeah, don’t' read this if you're a bigot. You won't like it.

And with that segue, I would say there's one more group who may want to avoid this, but not for shitty reason like the bigots. If you are particularly affected by tragic, awful things happening to children…maybe not the book for you. While it always makes sense in the world, the story, and with the characters, it's a noticeable thing: children in this story do poorly. Their hands are broken to teach them lessons. They're forced to live in barns. They're kept in comatose states to serve the government. They're molested by their social superiors. And they're sometimes just flat-out murdered in cold blood. It works, it really does, but there's enough that even I think it's worth warning off people who just can't handle that. Or even if you just can't handle it right now, or without warning. You've been warned.

But all in all, The Fifth Season is the first book to leave me in a proper book hangover for…a few years, at least. I think the last one was How to be a Normal Person, and that hangover only lasted a day or so.

I'm on day three of my Fifth Season hangover as I write this, and I don't see it getting better anytime soon. So clearly I'm giving this book 5 stars. Thank you for writing this, Ms. Jemisin. Thank you.

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