What Happens When One Puts a Tired Concept in the Hands of a Brilliant Writer – A Review of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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Currently, post-apocalyptic stories appear to be all the rage. While the idea of humanity struggling to survive in the aftermath of a catastrophic event is nothing new, it appears to have had a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Most attribute this rise in popularity to Suzanne Collins’ young-adult trilogy The Hunger Games, set in a post-apocalyptic United States where every year, two children are chosen from areas called districts, and then are thrown into an arena with other children from other districts. There, they battle each other to the death, watched by thousands of cheering, screaming spectators. The young-adult market is currently one of the strongest and most profitable in publishing, and whenever a formula sells, it gets repeated over and over and over again—whether or not the writers repeating that formula are good at using it in the first place.

As a result, there is a great big glut of post-apocalyptic stories on bookshelves. This also means that many readers, myself included, have grown immensely weary of the post-apocalyptic story. I would like to read more of them, especially because such settings and worlds offer an amazing space for exploring darker themes and commentaries, but it’s difficult to find stories that focus on those darker themes in a manner I find creditable. Most of the time, the post-apocalyptic stories I come across either focus on a tiresome and trite love triangle, and/or sacrifice thematic concerns for needless action and drama.

But when I heard that N.K. Jemisin, author of the Inheritance trilogy and the Dreamblood duology, was writing a post-apocalyptic fantasy series, I knew it was something I had to read as soon as it came out. Jemisin is one of my “tried and true” authors: writers whose works are so consistently high quality that practically anything they write, no matter the theme or concept, is guaranteed to be good. So when she announced last year that she was writing The Fifth Season, and that it was going to be a post-apocalyptic fantasy, I knew that I had to read it because I wanted to know what one of my favourite authors could do with a concept I’d dismissed some few years back as wearisome to read. I knew it would be good, because it was Jemisin, but I wanted to know just how good.

As expected, The Fifth Season is utterly amazing. What I did not expect, though, was how viscerally I would react to it, how often it would find my emotional soft spots and stab a searing hot knife into them. I suppose I should have expected that, since that’s precisely how I reacted to Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, but The Fifth Season is an entirely different beast, one that shows just how much Jemisin’s skill as a writer (already considerable when her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, debuted in 2010) has grown since I last read her work.

The Fifth Season is the first novel in The Broken Earth series, and is set in a world called the Stillness, where catastrophic natural disasters occur on a semi-regular basis. These events, called Seasons, have wiped out most of humanity before, but through some dint of extreme good luck there is always some fragment of humanity that survives to repopulate the world. However, given that these Seasons do occur semi-regularly, human society has been shaped by such harsh circumstances into something equally harsh. This is especially true when it comes to orogenes: people who have the power to manipulate and control the powerful tectonic activity that causes the Seasons to occur. Derogatorily called “rogga” by a hostile population, orogenes are either killed, or tightly controlled by the government, so that their talent for tectonic manipulation can be used to keep the rest of humanity safe.

But everything is about to change. Another Season has arrived, but this one is different from the ones that have come before. It is a Season to end all other Seasons—for it is the Season that might, finally, end the Stillness for good.

The first notable thing about this novel is Jemisin’s language. Jemisin has always had a beautiful way with language: a poetic sensibility that very, very few prose writers possess (or even some poets, for that matter). It is one of the most consistent features of her writing, and the feature I enjoy the most. Take this excerpt, for example, which comes from the Prologue:

This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time.

What makes Jemisin’s language poetic is not simply her word choice and imagery: it is also her ability to make use of rhythm to create an extra layer of musicality. In the excerpt above, one can almost hear the portentous drumbeats heralding the ultimate end of the world: initiated in the brief, factual statements in the first paragraph, and emphasised and built upon with the repetition of the phrase “This is the way the world ends.” By playing with sentence structure and repetition, even emphasis through the careful use of italics, Jemisin builds a rhythm within the greater structure of her prose, so that the reader is encouraged to read aloud, to physically savour the words in one’s mouth, even as one rolls them around in one’s mind.

But no amount of elegant prose can cushion the blow of the story Jemisin tells in this novel. While many post-apocalyptic stories are indeed set in worlds that are hard and harsh, all of those settings seem liveable compared to the world of the Stillness. Jemisin appears to have considered the worst possible scenario of all worst-case scenarios, and decided to run with it, creating a world that makes Collins’ Panem, or James Dashner’s Glade (setting of The Maze Runner books) seem incredibly tame and cushy by comparison.

It is not, however, obvious at first. It is not Jemisin’s style to give the reader the world on a silver platter; instead, she serves it out in small bites, building the world the same way she builds her characters and her plot: slowly, deliberately, wrapped in beautiful storytelling that only makes the emotional blows even more painful when they are finally delivered. Through her three protagonists—Essun, Syenite, and Damaya—she builds the world of the Stillness, in all of its glory, and all of its horror. But as the three protagonists gradually reveal the truth behind the Stillness even as they tell their own heartwrenching stories, it becomes clear that words like “brutal” and “harsh” do not even begin to cover what the world is like, and more importantly, what it has made of the people that live in it.

This leads me to something that some writers of post-apocalyptic stories seem to forget: catastrophic events on the scale that create post-apocalyptic worlds also create cultures that are capable of doing things “normal” people would think horrific. And while the Hunger Games are indeed horrific, they are tame compared to the things people do in the name of survival (among other things) in The Fifth Season. The most illustrative example of that, for me, is too long to quote here, but below is an excerpt that hints at the greater horror that underpins the orderliness of the Stillness:

”You think that matters?” It’s almost cruel, the emotionlessness of his voice and face.

“It matters to me!”

“You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapour that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” … “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”

The excerpt comes from one scene that was so utterly horrific, it forced me to put the book aside for a few days—and that’s saying something, since I’m relatively tolerant of horrific things in books as long as there is good reason for them to be there. Unlike some other writers though, Jemisin writes such scenes not for the shock value, but because they say something relevant about the world, or the characters, or the themes of the book, or even all three. And among the many, many things that Jemisin is trying to say with this novel, it is that people are capable of justifying a whole host of terrible, inhumane actions, so long as it suits their purposes—and, worse, the most horrifying actions are not those acted upon the body, but upon the soul, through educational and cultural indoctrination.

Overall, The Fifth Season is a brilliant display of talent from one of the most amazing writers in genre fiction. Jemisin’s writing has always been poetic, but she takes it to another level entirely in this novel, using beautiful, poetic language to tell a story of hardship and brutality, building a world where no one, not even a child, is spared the cruelty of a culture with one purpose: survival against all odds. I will not deny that this is a hard book to read, because Jemisin does not spare the reader the harsh realities of life in the Stillness, but it is one of the finest I have read this year. I do not know where Jemisin plans to take this story (though the ending gives some idea as to where things might go), but I look forward to it with eagerness, and with dread.

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4 thoughts on “What Happens When One Puts a Tired Concept in the Hands of a Brilliant Writer – A Review of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

  1. This book was everything I wanted it to be and so much more. It took me a week to read it just because I needed time to think after almost every chapter. At one point I said to my sister “This book is so good I don’t even want to finish it”.

    1. Oh yes, it is certainly a obok that makes you think. And while I know it’s perfectly-paced, I almost didn’t want that ending to come. I also think I would have finished this book in three days if I didn’t pause to get over some of the more violent scenes, it’s just THAT good.

      At least we’re going to get more soon, since this is a series. I have absolutely no idea where Jemisin is going to take this (well, all right, I kind of do, but not much!), and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next, even if it breaks my heart.

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