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.

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