Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, needs little introduction. Released to great acclaim, for good reason, it marks Jemisin’s authoritative ascendance into the company of elite sci-fi/fantasy writers of our day.

The story follows three women, all of whom are Orogenes, people who have the ability to call upon the powers of the earth. In this world, earthquakes are very common, and whole civilizations have been swallowed by previous quakes. Orogenes are capable of shaping, redirecting, or even causing earthquakes.

Orogenes are also viewed with distrust and suspicion by non-Orogenes.

One of the reasons why I loved this book so much, besides Jemisin’s beautiful writing and her deft plotting, is that it demonstrates one of the great strengths of genre books – its ability to critique and comment on contemporary society. Jemisin, a black writer, draws clear parallels between racial tensions (Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, et al) to the tensions between Orogenes and non-Orogenes. She also conveys what’s it’s like to live as people who have to constantly be on guard, have to watch not just their behavior and language, but also the way they think.

Take, for example, this passage between Syen, one of the main characters, and her mentor Alabaster – who in addition to teaching her the ways of being an Orogene, is forced to sleep with her so that they can make Orogene children for the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is a school for Orogenes, and children are raised there to master control over their powers:

[Alabaster] rolls onto his back, looking up at the sky, and she thinks that’s the end of the conversation, until he says, “I think you hate me because…I’m someone you can hate. I’m here, I’m handy. But what you really hate is the world.”

At this Syen tosses her washcloth into the bowl of water she’s been using and glares at him. “The world doesn’t say inane things like that.”

“I’m not interested in mentoring a sycophant. I want you to be yourself with me. And when you are, you can barely speak a civil word to me, no matter how civil I am to you.”

Hearing it put that way, she feels a little guilty. “What do you mean, then, that I hate the world?”

“You hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just…be.” He sighs, closing his eyes. “There should be a better way.”

“There isn’t.”

Being white, I don’t often think about how I’ll be perceived by others, but this is a very real thought process for a lot of black Americans – for many, there’s a constant, unending pressure on them to act a certain way, to say (or not say) certain things. Wanda Sykes makes this point much better and funnier than I ever could. And if you doubt this is true, just take a look at the YouTube comments for that video, always a font of wisdom. Here’s two that stood out for me:

Black people are naturally talented in music. Black slaves were demanded to perform in dinner parties to entertain the white people. It became their natural talent. It’s hard to find a black person who can’t sing or dance.

Or this:

“Ya know what dignified black people hate?   Tapdancin.”  –Wanda Sykes trying to be funny. There are very few dignified blacks.  Learn how to speak first.  And try not to spend the welfare money on booze and cigarettes.

Yeah. Moving on.

The reason I bring this up is because Orogenes have this natural, deep reservoir of power, power that’s controlled by others. The three main characters are all, at some point, have to answer to forces beyond themselves. When they finally do exercise their own powers, the earth itself literally trembles.

The Fifth Season has a lot going for it. You can read it on the surface level, and enjoy it for the story and the fantastic writing alone. It’s easy to read it that way. But like Orogenes, the book’s power runs deep. And that, more than any other reason, is why this is a memorable, worthy read, one that should place it among the firmament of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest novels.

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