The short: 4.5/5 ✦. A truly amazing novel that takes every SF/F convention and turns it on its stereotypical head. There’s earthquakes, pain, rock creatures, sacrifice, Evil Earth, and multi-faceted characters who must battle for their very existence.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book this well done. I’m tempted to clarify that with “an adult book this well done, but I think that would disservice both genres of YA and adult. True, most of my literary adventures are within the YA sphere; for me, they usually have the most interesting and rewarding plots and characters, as I find adult fiction to focus more on prose and structure than anything else. There are exceptions, of course, and I don’t tie myself down in any one genre but rather chose to explore anything and everything (except romance and horror, but that’s a personal preference). A good book is a good book, plain and simple. But to be fair, YA does cater to a specialized audience, and this book doesn’t have that focus. Not that YA fans wouldn’t enjoy it, but it’s written more broadly and . . . just differently. I didn’t know when I picked up this novel that it wasn’t YA, but I figured it out within a few pages. The “adult book” style isn’t better or worse than “YA style,” just . . . different. But I digress. Either way, I think the last fantasy SF/F adult book I read was Game of Thrones (don’t quote me on that), and the setting of The Fifth Season is similar in that it also features a broken, terrible world.
But the story is far more rewarding.
I admit that it took awhile to get into; there were a lot of new terms and names to get used to, and I admire Jemisin’s difficult decision to not fact-dump everything on her readers. On one hand, it’s frustrating because you’re so confused and you just want someone to give a simple straight answer, but on the other hand (and more important from a narrative point of view), slowly releasing information bit by bit results in the reader putting it all together like the pieces of a puzzle and feeling just as satisfied and rewarded when the entire picture is complete.
The Fifth Earth features three story-lines that are both separate and connected, taking place on an Earth-like planet with the main landmass being called The Stillness – an ironic name, since the whole place is plagued with earthquakes. The titular “Fifth Season” is a period taking place every century or so where the earthquakes get so bad, the ground erupts, spewing ash into the sky that darkens the earth for years. All human life must adapt to this harsh reality or die. Everything they do or learn about is related to survival. All storytellers relate “stonelore,” or the histories of all the peoples before the current one, about what they did before their Fifth Season – and how they died/survived when it happened. Entertainment is limited, kindness even more so. They have communities, but only because it’s better to stick together during each mini-apocalypse. Even though Seasons are few and far between, they are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and deadly. In fact, the one group of people who can actually help (orogenes, capable of creating and quelling shakes) are ostracized, hated, and killed.
This all makes for unbelievably fascinating world-building, and it’s presented in incredible detail and total verification of logic. This isn’t sci-fi, it’s fantasy, so none of the “magic” has to make sense outside the rules of its own world, but you can tell Jemisin put a great deal of research and care into every aspect of how the orogenes use their powers, and having the proper terms for geology, physics, seismology, etc. is just delicious icing on the cake.
Another plus is the inclusion of different races and genders without comment. Most everyone is POC, but that’s normal. White people are also normal. Being gay or bi or straight is normal. I only point this out because that’s pretty rare in SF/F – I mean, you’d think that in a magical world that could be filled with anything from rainbow unicorns to talking trees, there wouldn’t be a need for the very mundane concepts of the type of racism and sexism and homophobia that exists in our reality, but that’s often not the case (re: Game of Thrones). There’s nothing wrong with medieval Europe fantasy stories with blond knights running around, but I kinda want something different. Something more representational of our actual wonderfully diverse world – that also has rainbow unicorns and talking trees! In any case, this is a subject I’m not qualified to discuss more about, so I’ll leave it at that. The point anyway is that it’s all presented normally, and that’s all that matters.
I could continue raving about this book, but I don’t want to spoil any plot details, not even a little. It’s far better to take this journey on your own. Though I will say that the current synopsis on Goodreads is . . . weird. A better summary (and a great analysis) is this review. Read that, get the book, and give it at least 50 pages to hook you. Trust me, you won’t need the last 49.
Header image: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, published August 4th 2015 by Orbit.