Reading,  Review

Book Review: The Fifth Season

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by N.K. Jemisin, and winner of the Hugo in 2016.

The world has an extra way to kill people. Actually, many extra ways, but they all stem from this particular earth being geologically unstable or the magic that has developed in a tiny number of people, giving them the ability to affect the earth.

Every so often, there’s a major tectonic catastrophe. Sometimes that catastrophe ends civilizations and sometimes it doesn’t, but once in a great while it causes a fifth season during which the earth recovers and people try to. These can last years, periods of what we might call nuclear winter, but caused by massive eruptions instead. Some of these border on extinction events, but life, and humanity, clings by its fingernails until things get better.

Now add in the orogenes, people who can, to varying degrees, control the environment around them. Ordinary humans don’t like them much because of the power they hold, and they are kept on a tight leash, forced to be a benefit to society according to their abilities and in whatever way society requires of them.

Oh, and the remains of a variety of past civilizations litter the planet. Some of them might have had some significant technology, but in the time period we’re concerned with, I’d call it a more or less age of enlightenment level, with a few odd exceptions in either direction.

There are three intercut narratives making up the story, telling bits of the tale and building bits of the world. All three are from the point of view of a member of the powerful yet downtrodden orogenes class. As a story telling device, I like the use of the same group being both powerful and powerless, a group of people who could take over the world if they truly wanted to, but who are too conditioned to want to. And I really enjoyed the diversity in experience and personalities of the main characters. There are no cardboard cut outs here. If someone is important to the story, they’re distinct and realized with their own voice.

There’s a great deal of world building gone into this story. Standard fantasy tropes aren’t to be found here: the author has built a completely fresh world. Ms. Jemisin’s writing carries you along through the exploration of character and society so well that when you realize what ties the three separate stories together, you find you knew it all along because she laid the groundwork so well while you were enjoying the story.

And it’s a strong story of the struggle to adapt. Individuals, groups, and societies. The world is a difficult place for all of those, and with the coming of a new Season, it’s going to get worse. Life is going to get harder for those who survive.

If I have one significant issue with the book, it’s that one of the narratives is told from a second person POV. I don’t really like second person as a perspective beyond a short story of a couple of thousand words. It wears on my quickly. Properly done, making the reader the subject of every sentence and action can lend an air of immediacy to the story, swallow the audience whole into the narrative. And Ms. Jemisin does it properly. The problem is, I don’t think it’s sustainable for long. Eventually, being the subject of things starts feeling like you’re being told what you’re doing or going to do. Maybe it’s me, but if that goes on very long, I start to resent it. In this book, I kept waiting for the second person parts to end and eventually found myself disappointed when that perspective took over, even though the writing remained excellent and the story stayed engaging.

Overall rating: 4 stars, leaning towards 4.5. I really enjoyed this book, but a third of it being told in second person perspective grated on me after a while. Plus, the book ends on kind of a cliffhanger. I knew it was the first book of a series going in, but I still would have liked the story to be more or less complete on its own. We end with new questions being asked and just the hint of new secrets being revealed.

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