The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin

Book cover

A couple of years ago I felt an urge to get acquainted with some modern sci-fi. The Hugo Best Novel winner list is an obvious place to start. My first try was “Ancillary Justice” (2014), which was a dud for me. “The Fifth Season” (2016) was my second try, and much more successful!

It is not obvious whether it’s better classified as sci-fi or fantasy (Hugo covers both), and perhaps that’s a good thing. I would lean toward calling it “fantasy,” as the main departures from our own world have to do with innate characteristics of some individuals, rather than technology. But it is not weighed down by any of the trappings of “classical” medieval-Europe-style fantasy (elves, wizards, etc.).

The setup is an intriguing one, and very timely for us today. The story takes place in a continent called The Stillness, on a world that I mostly presumed to be not our own (though there are some suggestions to the contrary in the course of the book). The key characteristic of this world is that, at unpredictable but relatively frequent intervals (on the order of decades to centuries), there are cataclysmic natural disasters, triggering the eponymous “fifth seasons.” These include seismic activity, volcanic eruptions and subsequent “nuclear winters,” and also tend to trigger unpredictable and dangerous changes in wildlife behavior. The result is a society, or really a scattering of societies, heavily organized around the challenge of how to survive fifth seasons. An extremely atmospheric aspect of this setting is that, scattered around The Stillness, there are “deadciv ruins,” relics of previous civilizations that were destroyed during fifth seasons, many seemingly very advanced. There is a cultural tradition of “stonelore,” advice about surviving fifth seasons that has been passed down through cataclysms. Also, there is a fascinating religious tradition that has developed alongside this situation: Father Earth hates his children and wants to kill them. So dark and awesome!

OK, that was a lot, but I still haven’t described the most important part of the setup! The inhabitants of The Stillness are more or less recognizably human people, but some people are born with special innate powers. These people are called “orogenes,” and their powers are generally related to seismic activity. They have special sensory organs that allow them to perceive what is going on in the earth, and also to affect it–most importantly, to still or divert earthquakes and eruptions. This is a valuable ability, but it is also a dangerous one. To wield this power the orogene needs to draw energy from her surroundings, which leeches heat away and freezes things. An orogene, especially an untrained one, is at high risk of “icing” people. Because of all this, orogenes are generally despised by “normal” people (they are often referred to by a vulgar term, “roggas”). They are often killed as children, but some are brought to a special school called the Fulcrum to be trained and to serve the society. Being brought to the Fulcrum is sort of a good thing because it means you’re not killed, but it’s not obvious that it’s a good place–it’s not like going to Hogwarts or something.

Anyway. The book follows three female orogenes (in separate stories) around the time of an extremely bad cataclysm that triggers the mother of all fifth seasons. I am going to avoid plot spoilers here, though I may put some in my review of the sequel. But I loved this book, as well as the sequel (the third one comes out later this year!). There is very little “break in the action” between the two books, so that you pretty much want to pick the second one right up and keep going. The plot is compelling, and the way that the stories come together is interesting–see how quickly you can figure out how the three stories relate to one another! Very importantly for a sci-fi/fantasy book, the characters are richly drawn and multi-dimensional. Essun is probably the most memorable, but Alabaster, Schaffa, and Hoa are all up there too. (Man, I didn’t even describe Guardians and Stone Eaters–you’ll just have to read the book!). One thing you may find annoying–I did–is that one of the three stories is written in the second person. However, there is a specific reason for that which is revealed later in the book, so it does pay off.

The very beginning section of the book is extremely important to understanding how everything comes together. It is not obvious for a while, because the actors in the first section are not named. (It also was even less obvious to me, because I had to return the book to the library and get back on the waiting list to finish it, which meant it was months between reading the first section and getting to where things tied together!) But I thought this was very nicely done.

The book also has quite a bit of social commentary, delivered in a subtle way that doesn’t trumpet itself as such. Obviously with the orogenes, there are issues of prejudice and projection of hatreds on Others. I also like that Jemisin took the freedom of a fantasy world to portray homosexual, transgender, and polyamorous people in a setting where those things are not burdened with the associations and prejudices that they are in our world. Finally, the book deals with some pretty deep issues around parent-child relationships, not always in a pretty way.

I am so glad that this book won the Hugo. It manages to be a gripping sci-fi/fantasy story while also transcending the genre in a way that very few books have. I can only really think of two other books that manage that same kind of transcendence, both of which are Hugo award winners themselves, and both by the same author: “The Dispossessed” (1975) and “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1970), both by Ursula K. Le Guin. Rarefied company indeed!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars