The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

There’s not much that needs to be said about The Broken Earth by now. The trilogy has already made Hugo history, and everyone knows that N K Jemisin is a force to be reckoned with. So, I’m just going to go through a few of things I particularly liked about The Fifth Season which boil down to: read the book dummy, you’ll like it!

One of the biggest talking points about this book is the different tenses. I’m all for non-standard prose so I fully embraced the second-person narrative present in one of the three perspectives. This viewpoint is of Essun, a grieving mother who has to quickly leave her home in fear of persecution. Her chapters are supremely intimate, with Jemisin almost telling the reader what to feel. It can be somewhat intrusive to begin with, but you quickly get immersed in the character’s plight. Her suffering demands sympathy through the choice of narrative and if anything, the reader is left wondering until the end why this character is singled out in second-person and not the others.

Multiple points of view can sometimes be used as a crutch for complex stories. The author might realise that the reader doesn’t have access to a crucial development through the eyes of the main character(s) and so they just add another solely to showcase it (a familiar example may be Areo Hotah of ASoIaF, gifting the reader an insight into Dorne politics). This is not the case in The Fifth Season however. The two other characters, Damaya and Syen, play important roles in the story, interweaving with each other naturally. Damaya, a young girl, taken from her home to the Fulcrum to be taught how to control her powers of orogeny. Jemisin subverts the ‘magic school’ trope with the Fulcrum – it’s less a school and more a prison controlled by non-orogenes who force the young children into horrifyingly abusive relationships with a Guardian. Syen is the output of this oppressive system – a young adult, ambitious and blunt with a simmering anger at her prescribed tasks.

While speculative fiction is often read for the purposes of escapism, some of the most influential works in the genre are those that do so while combating current day socio-political issues. The race parallels in The Fifth Season are not subtle, they’re not meant to be. Jemisin is hitting us over the head with how bizarre it is that this backwards concept still exists. It’s impossible to read this book without seeing the absurd hypocrisy in how the population sees orogenes – simultaneously hating them, being terrified of them, relying on them for safety, and enslaving them. The pejorative term ‘rogga’ is used repeatedly in reference to orogenes, a clear analogue for the n word (right down to the -gga). In comparison, the slur for non-orogenes is ‘stills’ which no one really reacts to – equivalent to any attempted slur for white people (e.g. cracker, gammon) which are comparatively entirely inoffensive.

“You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one, and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be… uncomfortable?” “Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.”

The frustration of the author is felt most keenly through the actions and words of a particularly strong orogene, Alabastor. Though he is more powerful than probably everyone in the world of The Stillness, he is still looked down upon by and a slave to the Fulcrum. It’s through him that Syen (and transitively, the reader) realises just how utterly flawed the system is.

One smaller thing I want to touch upon quickly is the topic of relationships. Polygamous and gay relationships are portrayed casually and hardly commented on. They are popular topics to be fetishized or demonised in fiction so to see them both be present without much bearing on the overall plot is a refreshing representation.

The Fifth Season isn’t a straightforward book – the magic is intentionally left vague for much of the book, the world and its history are intricately designed (with two glossaries!), and the three stories don’t quite line up until the end. Nor is it an optimistic book – it opens with filicide, later Damaya is tortured by her Guardian ‘for her own good’ and it doesn’t let up from there. But it is amazing and should absolutely be read by everyone.

The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.