Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; Death is the fifth, and master of all.
The Fifth Season is a beautifully written apocalyptic fantasy featuring an intricate and inventive magic system and world. It’s also very ambitious from a literary standpoint, but those ambitions aren’t always met.
The Fifth Season is a Hugo Awards Best Novel finalist.
The Fifth Season takes place in a world regularly rent and wrecked by catastrophic earthquakes, creating the titular fifth seasons. It’s a world where the greatness of a society is measured by how many seasons it has survived. It’s a world where people with the ability to control quakes—orogenes—are feared and needed in equal measure (as is usually the way of it—see, bankers). Jemisin throws us into this world with three separate POV characters, with three distinct plot threads, apparently taking place at different times. Those POV characters are Syen, an orogene given an unpleasant assignment; Damaya, a young girl taken to the capital for training after it is discovered she has orogenic ability; and “you,” an older orogene living incognito. The book begins, or near enough, with an immensely powerful orogene cracking the world like an egg, an event that promises to bring a fifth season of untold scale and suffering.
Right there are the seeds of much of what makes The Fifth Season great, and where it stumbles. It’s the sort of rich world that shows up in fantasy at its best. It’s a world with a lot of backstory lurking under the surface. Previous fifth seasons are talked of in hushed tones, people follow a lore of how to live through fifth seasons that has reached almost religious significance, and the world is littered with deadciv artifacts and technology. Most notably the massive obelisks that float in the air. The threat of the next fifth season weighs as heavily on the people as the past fifth seasons do. Jemisin is exceptional at making up names to go along with her worldbuilding. Most notably, the PC word, orogene, has a natural aesthetic beauty to it that nicely contrasts with the guttural sound of the corresponding epithet, rogga. Language reflects the world. “Rust” is an epithet where acid rain destroys metal. Orogene novices are “grits,” the “unimportant bit of rock ready to be polished into usefulness, or at least to help grind other, better rocks.” Kirkhusa are “more like big land-bound otters than canines,” and it’s just cool to visualize giant otters that go feral when a season strikes.
It’s a big world full of detail.
“Syen takes another sip, trying not to grimace at the chalky grit near the bottom of the cup. Safe is nutritious, but it’s not a drink anyone enjoys. It’s made from a plant milk that changes color in the presence of any contaminant, even spit. It’s served to guests and at meetings because, well, it’s safe. A polite gesture that says: I’m not poisoning you. At least, not right now.”
“You’ve met geomests. They’re everything people think orogenes are when they’re feeling charitable: arcane, unfathomable, possessed of knowledge no mortal should have, disturbing. No one but a geomest would know so many useless facts, so thoroughly.”
“Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.”
“When there is no earth-power nearby, an orogene can still make the earth move, but only by taking the necessary heart and force and motion from the things around her. Anything that moves or has warmth—campfires, water, the air, even rocks. And, of course, living things.”
(Jemisin also has a knack for managing to squeeze wham lines into little paragraphs of worldbuilding.)
It’s almost perfect, but not quite. Her labels sometimes miss—“shakes” for earthquakes. It’s hard to place the technological timeframe—there is running water and advanced hydro and geo power, but it seems early modern at best in a lot of other ways. That sort of thing can make a second world seem truly foreign—high praise in my book—but here it looks more like unfinished worldbuilding.
It is, as I mentioned, ambitious from a literary standpoint. I suspect that has a lot to do with its critical success. As someone who reads a lot of speculative fiction, I love it when authors are doing something different, but I prize execution above all. Jemisin’s execution isn’t always great—most notably with the decision to write an entire plot thread in second-person—which is why The Fifth Season isn’t as good a book as Uprooted, a less ambitious book that is pretty much perfect in the execution.
The Fifth Season is a dark, evocative, richly imagine, and beautifully written story. It’s the first N.K. Jemisin book I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.