Book Review 7: “The Fifth Season”

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Reviewed by Bill Oram

Genre: Science Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

This novel throws you into the middle of an absorbing, violent world.  The world is literally violent.  It’s rent by earthquakes and volcanoes and periodic catastrophes (“fifth seasons”) that cause decades of crop failures, interrupting and sometimes ending civilizations.  The planet itself seems an enemy, and a common exclamation is “Evil Earth!”  The book opens with two tragedies, the death of a child and the start of a fifth season.  “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we” the deadpan narrator begins, “and move on to more interesting things.”  The more interesting things include the self-destructiveness of the world’s civilization as well as the earth’s violence.  But these large issues appear through the experiences of the three female protagonists, a child, a young woman and a middle-aged mother, each of whom features in a different plot, at a different time.  The narrative shifts between them.   

The three women are all orogones—human beings with a special capacity for identification with and control of the earth and its molten energies.  The general population fears and hates the orogones (it’s not clear if they have been taught to do this) while the government enslaves them, brainwashes them, breeds them, and uses them to stabilize the environment.  The novel follows the protagonits’ various attempts to create places of safety, freedom and dignity.  The book is partly about race, and it’s also about the relation between knowledge and power, and the need of each of the characters to come to terms with her own nature. There is also a lot of wild and fascinating invention—a sinister race of stone-eaters, mysterious obelisks and the gradually clarifying history of the past.

As with many science fiction novels, this one throws you into its world and asks you gradually to figure it out. The three plots are all related, and by the end of the novel you see the connections but, since it is the first of a trilogy, you don’t learn everything, and the novel ends with many balls in the air.  It’s a terrific book, deeply absorbing and it stays in the memory.  Its characters are vivid, understandable, and their experiences are moving.  For all its grimness, it’s full of wonder.  It won a Hugo award and was nominated for practically all the other SF and fantasy awards that count.  I loved it.       

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