Book Review: The Fifth Season

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Cover image of NK Jemisin’s 2015 Hugo Award winning novel “The Fifth Season

“Jemisin is now a pillar of speculative fiction, breathtakingly imaginative and narratively bold.”―Entertainment Weekly

“Intricate and extraordinary.”―The New York Times

“[The Fifth Season is] an ambitious book, with a shifting point of view, and a protagonist whose full complexity doesn’t become apparent till toward the end of the novel. … Jemisin’s work itself is part of a slow but definite change in sci-fi and fantasy.”―Guardian

“Astounding… Jemisin maintains a gripping voice and an emotional core that not only carries the story through its complicated setting, but sets things up for even more staggering revelations to come.”―NPR Books

“Jemisin’s graceful prose and gritty setting provide the perfect backdrop for this fascinating tale of determined characters fighting to save a doomed world.”―Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“A must-buy…breaks uncharted ground.”―Library Journal (starred review)

“Jemisin might just be the best world builder out there right now…. [She] is a master at what she does.”―RT Book Reviews (Top Pick!)

“Wait! What? Sure, it’s an interesting story, but… –Me

I’ve read most Hugo nominated and award-winning novels from 1988 back to 1958, when the Hugos first came into existence, but recently, I decided for the sake of fairness, I should consume more recent popular SF/F novels and stories to see how cultural perception is changing the landscape of speculative fiction. The fact that N.K. Jemisin is a three-time Hugo award winner wasn’t lost on me, particularly after having read her latest controversial historic Hugo Award acceptance speech.

Fortunately, The Fifth Season (2015), the first book in “The Broken Earth” series, was available through my local public library system. Given its obvious “hype,” I was hoping for something spectacular and afraid that it wouldn’t be.

It’s a hard novel to get into. The Prologue is mysterious to the point of being incomprehensible, which isn’t a good thing if you’re hoping to “hook” your reader right off the bat. I thought that if the entire book were written that way, I probably would stop reading it at some point early on (and I almost did). After all, the story has to make sense and pull the reader into its world from the very beginning.

The tale is set on an Earth in the far future where all of the continents have again rejoined to form a single super-continent like the long theorized Pangaea of perhaps 250 million years ago. That would place the date of the novel’s events hundreds of millions of years from now, and amazingly, human beings have survived.

The novel is more fantasy than science fiction, since it depicts certain subsets of human beings as having fantastic powers (and no explanation for how they were acquired), for which they are almost always ostracized, feared, shunned, even as their abilities are needed to stabilize vast geological disturbances.

Along about page sixty, I finally figured out the author’s metaphors and symbolism, the nature of systemic prejudice against her “Orogenes” which, by her own admission mirrors both Jemisin’s own lived experience as well as her sense of the overarching perception of structural oppression in human history. At the same time, she introduced the theme of forced (or at least obligatory) sexual intercourse between partners who don’t desire each other for the sole purpose of producing useful offspring.

Later in the novel, sexuality and gender takes a different turn, with three-partner sex being much more preferable (and pleasurable) than traditional cisgender encounters. However, I’m still trying to figure out how her single (apparently) transsexual/transgender character serves the plot. I have to imagine that this will be revealed in the subsequent novels, otherwise, said-character was included only for the purposes of social expediency and expectation (because, as far as I can tell, the role of this character in the novel did not require the person to be anything other than female).

There’s also a great deal of anger dwelling within her protagonist(s), and for a while, I thought the entire theme of the story would be “anger is strength.” Yes, anger can be strength in a crisis situation, but it works very poorly as an enduring lifestyle, which many of her characters seem to nurture.

The story does very slowly reveal itself, though for a period of time, I thought the author might have crafted her tale less for the science fiction and fantasy reader’s enjoyment, and more as a tome to be studied in a university literature class so students could marvel at its intricate and relevant social and environmental themes.

However, as Jemisin unveiled the clues and the nuances of her story, it started to become more interesting. Admittedly, this didn’t happen until somewhere between about halfway to two-thirds of the way through, but after all, what I was looking for was something interesting, and the author certainly made me work to get there.

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Screenshot of J.K. Jemisin from YouTube – Found at Vox.com

I found the sequence of events that took place on the island to be my favorite part, probably because the people native to that place actually knew how to have fun and weren’t always angry or depressed. They lived in a dangerous home and sustained themselves through piracy, but of all the places on this mythical planet, the island is where I’d have chosen to live.

Of course the joy, the fun, the island, and its people didn’t last.

It was difficult for me to like most (or any) of the characters, except maybe for the pirate leader Innon, and mainly because he knew how to have fun, he could comfort and feel profound compassion for a hurting person, and he loved children, particularly the protagonist’s son. Who wouldn’t want to have a loud, exciting pirate for an Uncle or a Dad? The guy really knew how to party.

Besides Innon, most of the people in the novel were terrible, terrible parents, and I say that as both a Dad and a Grandpa. No child deserves such lousy Moms and Dads, and most of the kids in the story end up dying pretty horribly.

I think I finally relaxed into the book during the last hundred pages or so, in spite of the densely packed symbolism and the depressive malaise that shrouds the nearly 450 pages from prologue to final chapter. Jemisin’s writing does manage to weave a story of human beings struggling, not only against what some would call “climate justice,” and societal prejudice, but more importantly, against the damage done to their own twisted souls.

My imagination did perk up at the final line of dialogue (and the concept introduced was alluded to several times in the tale), but not enough for me to rush out and lay my hands on The Obelisk Gate, which is the second book in the series. Real life can be depressing enough, and often I read in order to transport myself away to better and more optimistic climes. Should I choose to consume Jemisin’s second “Broken Earth” novel, it will be after I’ve had some time to “decompress” with other stories of the fantastic, and yes, the uplifting.

As a final word, I must say that just because a novel wins an award (or awards) and is lauded as “Astounding” (NPR), “Amazing” (Ann Leckie), and “Brilliant” (Washington Post) doesn’t necessarily mean the individual reader will find it so. Philip K. Dick’s book The Man in the High Castle won the 1963 Hugo for best novel, and in my recent review, I found it very disappointing. This may have something to do with the subjectivity of assessing works of fiction or the nature of the Hugo Awards, but in the end, it’s the lone reader sitting up late at night in bed turning page after page of an author’s pride and joy, a work the writer has poured blood, pain, and inspiration into, who decides if it’s an interesting story.

I’m sorry to “politicize” this review in any sense, but it seems to be what Jemisin’s novel demands.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Fifth Season

  1. Of all the book-jacket accolades you listed at the beginning of this review, yours is the one that would be most likely to pique my curiosity to read the book.

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  2. Agreed, this is not an easy book to get into. Jemisin throws you into the deep end, and expects you to read your way towards understanding the terminology and metaphors. The tension, violence, anger, and awful parenting ramps up in book 2, which probably explains why I haven’t yet read book 3.

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    • Oh darn. I was hoping the parenting got better, not worse. I know nothing about Jemisin’s personal life so I don’t understand her background relative to interpersonal relationships and parenting. Although I’m an exceptionally minor writer, I have a hard time putting children in peril, let alone killing them in fiction because of my relationship with my (adult) children and particularly my young grandchildren.

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  3. I’m curious. I’ve shared information at one of your sites before about individuals being intersex (which can be confused with transsexual or transgender but is not the same). Is it possible that “her single (apparently) transsexual/transgender character” is intergender/intersex? There is a person to whose site I linked who had given birth to children and of whom it could be said (in ignorance) that there is no requirement in life that said person be “anything other than” a woman. Yet the person is something other than a woman (and always has been). Perhaps, as you indicated, “this will be revealed in the subsequent novels” for this given character.

    On the other hand, does the reason, for example, a female scientist is included in fiction during an age of only men having been allowed to work need to be spelled out or else be gratuitous? I’m not a great science fiction reader, as you know, so I have no actual book in mind as a concrete illustration of my point. I’m just wondering. I also feel like maybe there’s a connection here as well to the idea that the superpowers of these distant future people aren’t explained. Do we always explain how people now got their attributes? Are we required to delve into Darwinism or creationism (or something else serving the purpose) before we tell a story?

    Obviously, the answer is no… and I imagine you would say the answer is no too. Jemisin wrote a book and got it published and became famous and didn’t do the corresponding things, and you finally found it entertaining — and so on. I’m not criticizing your review. I’m attempting to bring up some thoughts that can be added into the mix of consideration or pondering. As for amazon, though, when I was looking at the audio version of the book, they offered up an induction deal for which I responded with a click to get back into Audible. But then the offer changed (the one that lured me nowhere to be found). So I didn’t bite. Maybe I’ll get around to it.

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    • Is it possible for the character in question to be intersex? Sure. Do I know for sure? Not without asking the author, and I don’t think she wants to hear from me. Do I have a problem with female scientists or other specialists in fiction. Not at all.

      In the novel I’ve finished but that needs editing, a group of siblings are the main characters, the oldest is a 13 year old girl, and of the five children, three are girls. Their main guide is a 14=year-old female warrior and dragon rider, and the central dragon in the novel is female.

      In the other novel I want to write, the central character is a 15-year-old African-American girl.

      So far, of the three short stories of mine that are going to be published, the first has two adult men, a little boy, a littler girl, and a male dragon. The second has an old man and a little boy as central characters, and the third depicts only an old man (there may be a theme here).

      I’ve submitted three more stories for publication (which may or may not be picked up) two of them have male main characters (an Irish-American teenager and a middle-aged Jewish Israeli scientist) and one has a female main character (an alien shapeshifter).

      Of the two stories I’m currently editing and plan to submit, the main characters for both are women, one being a spy of Arabic background and the other is a Mexican-American engineer on a spaceship.

      I say all this to illustrate that I like a wide variety of characters in stories as a way to add dimension and context in telling a story.

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  4. I wasn’t asking as to whether you “have a problem with female scientists or other specialists in fiction.” I assumed you didn’t and don’t (have a problem with that). That was why the idea would be helpful as a comparison in order to ask you the question I was actually asking you — a more nuanced question.

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  5. I tend to agree that All fiction is message fiction, Alexander. I don’t remember the exact instance(s), but I’ve thought of saying basically that (in other exact words) at this site. Now, one or another writer might be less aware of what messages are being sent even in their own writing — and some thought patterns are quite submerged in an author’s own mind (or anyone’s mind). [I bought your e-book, by the way, and like that you ask what a reader thinks it means… not because I’m post-modern, which I’m not. I haven’t read it yet.] I’ve enjoyed reading at your site.

    In the case of a question I asked in an earlier post, I will elucidate somewhat. If a future-set science-fiction story was written when the current society didn’t let women have particular or any positions in specialty work and the story had a woman or two in specialized settings, would it be obligatory to explain? Do we have to assume the outrage of Why does SHE get to be there? Or could it be a conscious decision to treat the presence as par for the course or no longer a vexing question? Of course, the men are always there (to the reader), but what the hell? Oh [thank God for the explanation]… this woman got a perfect score on her SAT/ACT, and the other was apprenticed by her genius father. No wonder we’re putting up with this. Or, with other assumptions, These gals tried to find husbands or have children but couldn’t, so, you know. Really, the women can range from somewhat ordinary to excellent just like the men do already (in a future fantasy setting of empowerment). Intersex people exist without our permission as well (although they have been historically hidden and often tortured or maimed). I might wonder why sexual (activity) scenes have to be included in stories. But they are already accepted in general even if just because. It could seem gratuitous (depending on the reader) whatever is involved. Like, Why are they not in missionary position? I haven’t read the scene(s) James has (in the book reviewed), so I don’t know how I would react (off the top of my head I tend to think I’d see it as mostly like ever* — gotta have stuff in there to sell books or keep folks coming back).

    * There might be exceptions to that in the world of novels, but most fiction is not really very profound.

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