The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. ★★★★1/2
The Fifth Season is the start of an inventive apocalyptic fantasy trilogy set in a world wracked by frequent catastrophes which destroy civilizations and leave ruins in their wake. People have grown used to a world of disasters and prepared, storing food for hard times ahead. But when a giant rift in the earth rips apart the continent, annihilating the capital of the empire, enough ash is released into the air to block out the sun for thousands of years.
Amid the chaos, Essun finds that her husband has murdered their son and left with their daughter. As the world collapses around her, she sets off across the dying land to find them.
The Fifth Season is incredibly gripping, and I had a hard time putting it down once I started. It’s also one of the most imaginative fantasy novels I’ve encountered. The setting is not some clone of the “generic medieval Europe fantasy novel” but instead is a completely different world, heavily influenced by planetary science.
In The Fifth Season certain people, called orogenes, have the power to shape the earth itself, creating and stopping earthquakes or lifting mountains through the air. Orogenes are feared and hated by the ordinary people, the stills, and most orogenes are either killed or picked up by the empire to be shaped into tools and weapons. Essun is an orogene and she sees it as more of a curse than a gift.
The story of Essun is interwoven with two other stories, one of an orogene woman belonging to the empire and one of a girl picked up to be trained. Through the orogenes, Jemisin explores power, oppression, and slavery. The orogenes have been officially classified as non-human by the empire, and those owned by it have very little say over their own lives.
One of the aspects that interested me about The Fifth Season was the use of second person for Essun’s sections. It was the first time I’d encountered it in a novel, but I thought it worked very well. Essun very much has the feel of a woman set adrift. The life she had is destroyed, but she’s desperate to salvage one thing – her daughter – and doesn’t care about much else.
What will be interesting is to see how Jemisin carries the story forward in the sequels. The Fifth Season didn’t have much in the romance department, which I personally liked. The two other fantasy novels by Jemisin that I’ve read both have a romance between a super powerful man and an intelligent but less powerful woman. There was a bit of that in The Fifth Season, but it wasn’t exactly a romance and wasn’t part of the main story line. Hopefully she breaks the mold in books going forward and gives Essun as much power and agency as any eventual love interests.
If I had one worry about The Fifth Season, it was that it’d be too dark. I’m not usually a fan of apocalyptic novels, so I didn’t know how I’d feel about this one. Thankfully, while The Fifth Season was certainly dark, it was never without a sense of hope. I also don’t think it had the “grimdark” feel, for which I was grateful.
I would recommend The Fifth Season to anyone who likes imaginative world building, apocalypse stories, diverse characters, and fantasy novels in general. This is a not to be missed entry to the genre.