Skip to main content

Review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

selection form the cover of The Fifth Season, a Shutterstock photo with design by Lauren Panepinto.

selection form the cover of The Fifth Season, a Shutterstock photo with design by Lauren Panepinto.

The Fifth Season takes place in roughly three parts. There is Essen’s post-apocalyptic revenge story as she sets out to get retribution on her husband for killing their child, tracking him as the titular season of extreme seismic activity takes place. Syenite is oppressed wizard—called an Orogene—who, like others of her kind, can manipulate the powers of the earth, and she’s paired up with a senior Orogene named Alabaster in a task to help reinvigorate the harbor of a nearby town. Damaya’s story is a variation of a young adult wizard school story, where she learns to control her supernatural powers while trying to fit in among the other outcast, oppressed Orogenes.

Headshot of N. K. Jemisin taken by Laura Hanifin.

Headshot of N. K. Jemisin taken by Laura Hanifin.

Earth Moves

The setting is different from traditional fantasy, giving the novel a unique texture from the start. It is interesting if inconsistent because there is electric light and complex neurosurgery, but people use stone tools and don’t have engines. These developments could be explained by an authoritarian regime regulating all aspects of its subjects’ lives, but readers are also told the empire is unwieldy and is mediocre in its functions, at best. It does have a lived-in sense, though, and a feeling of history upon which some of the characters remark. The feeling of this world and how the characters live within it are the best elements of this novel.

Fault Lines

There are style choices can be irritating: needless line breaks, italics to draw attention, and second person narration for a third of the story. In isolation, these qualities are tiresome but not fatal. By calling attention to itself, they disrupt the reader from the contract of the fictional dream to focus on craft rather than content. Different readers have different tolerance levels for these techniques. Readers who want to focus on the characters and plot will sometimes have to wait.

The story is not as clever as author thinks it is. For instance, all three narrative protagonists are actually the same person at different points in her life. There’s no reason to withhold that all three protagonists are the same person other than for the reveal. However, Jemisin pauses the story to break the fourth wall and draw attention to her misdirection, like a bad magician (150-1). She desperately wants the reader to know the “hidden” conceit, but there’s no need to hide it, especially since there are multiple clues sprinkled through the narratives. The logic required to accept this reveal is torturous. For instance, breaking the story in this way and deliberately withholding information forces the reader to believe the protagonist has forgotten her previous and traumatic encounters with Rock Eaters. The world seems much larger and more active until readers realize the protagonist is just one character, and she runs into the same few other characters all the time. It shrinks the sense of scope.

Scroll to Continue

The final reveal, though, is absurd. In her “interlude” the author taunts the reader to see if everyone is paying attention to what the author hasn’t mentioned yet, which it turns out is the moon because the setting doesn’t have one. The only way readers would understand this, however, makes no sense. If the characters exist in a setting without a moon, they wouldn’t know to comment on it because to them it is not an absence. This inability to question such a lack is even brought up in the interlude (151). The conclusion means readers should expect every story wherein the moon—or any other element—is not directly commented upon should be taken as something that is absent. This is a ludicrous development done solely for the sake of a shock revelation. This type of device can work in a 25 minute episode of the Twilight Zone, but to happen at the end of a 400 page novel that is the first in a series is nonsense. The protagonist might as well just wake up with the whole novel having been a dream.

Tectonic Shift

A reader looking for a fantasy novel with a setting and characters that are a far cry from classics of the genre may want to give The Fifth Season a try, especially if they have a high tolerance for non-traditional style choices and postmodern writing craft shenanigans.

Source

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit: 2015.

© 2022 Seth Tomko

Related Articles