The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
Not much to comment on this week other than the fact that I forgot to mention that the James Tiptree Award winners for 2015 were announced. The jury chose the following two works:
- The New Mother (short story) by Eugene Fischer published in the April / May edition of Asimov’s; and
- Lizard Radio (novel) by Pat Schmatz.
Because time is so very limited I’m unlikely to read Lizard Radio, but you never know.
And a day or so ago Dragon Con launched its own genre awards. To reflect the size of the con there’s about fifty billion categories ranging from best Apocalyptic fiction (my personal favourite) to Best episode in a continuing science fiction or fantasy series, TV or internet (take a deep breath). I don’t begrudge any organisation, individual or entity organising and administering their own awards. More power to them. Personally though, I think I’ll give this one a miss.
I liked both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – the first book in “The Inheritance” trilogy – and The Killing Moon – the first book in the “Dreamblood” duology – but not enough to buy subsequent volumes in either series. I assumed I’d have a similar reaction to The Fifth Season – the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy – that is, I would enjoy it but not feel compelled to pick up the sequel.
But you know what they say about assumptions and anal orifices…
I LOVED The Fifth Season, from its bold first sentence – “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” – steeped in foreknowledge and cataclysm, to the very last paragraph where plot threads are deliciously left hanging.
The thing is if you’ve read this blog or have heard me ramble on The Writer and the Critic you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of series books. I find it annoying that the genre I’ve adored since I was old enough to ask my Mum to purchase a shiny copy of Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden by Terrance Dicks, has always been chocker-block with trilogies and endless multi-book series. If there’s one thing that’s drawn me to literary work over the last five years it’s that those guys are still snobby enough to cherish the standalone novel. And yet here I am telling you that for the first time in years* I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in a series. (Which is called The Obelisk Gate, and which will be published in August – so four months away – and which I will be reading immediately).
So why all the excitement and hype? Well, if you haven’t read The Fifth Season I want you to stop now and read the book because the only way to discuss the novel is to spoil it. I know, I know, a good book should be able to survive spoilers… spoiler paranoia has destroyed criticism… etc. But seriously, part of what’s remarkable about this novel is how unexpected it is in terms of its plot and its structure. So off you go –
— and you’re back and because you’ve just read the novel I’m not going to précis the plot but rather just get straight to the bits I loved.
1) The Structure: It’s rare to come across a mainstream genre novel that tries to do something innovative with tone and structure. Jemisin not only provides distinctly different voices for her three female characters – Damaya, Syenite and Essun – but each strand is set at a different point in time. There’s also this lovely mix of third person present tense, second person and a first person narrator who stands above proceedings, foreshadowing where necessary. And it works. In fact, it’s so damn successful that it never occurred to me that this was a story about the same woman told at three different points in her life.
2) The Plotting: The highlight here is how Jemisin handles the reveal that Damaya, Syenite and Essun are the same person. When the link is made between Damaya and Syenite it’s a major moment at the end of a chapter and about halfway through the novel. Damaya has just experienced something dark and disturbing at the heart of the Fulcrum (the place where orogenes go to receive training) and when she chooses the name Syenite, she’s marking a transition from child to adult. But the link between Essun, Damaya and Syenite is revealed in an off-hand manner at the beginning of a chapter toward the end of the novel. It’s as if Jemisin is saying to the reader, “come on guys, you must have figured this out by now” and it’s also an indication that this is less about the “twist” and more about Essun’s willingness – at this point of the novel – to accept her past, to no longer hide from it. And somehow this revelation, even if you’ve already put two and two together, is far more powerful because it’s so understated.
3) The World Building: I’m sure this isn’t the first time that someone has written about a world that suffers from major tectonic stress. What’s brilliant though is that Jemisin doesn’t ram her world building down your throat. Like the plotting, she tells you what you need to know and let’s you figure out the rest for yourself. And because you’ve had to do some of the work, Jemisin’s world feels all the more layered and textured and believable.
4) The Theme: It’s made clear a number of times in the book that orogenes, with their ability to control and manipulate rock are both saviors – in that they can deflect and smooth out earthquakes and tremors – and villains in that they can destroy whole cities with very little effort. So when an orogene is born in a small village the townspeople either kill the child or, if the child is lucky, send it away to the capital where it can be trained for the betterment of society. But even then an orogenes is never truly free, always shadowed by a Guardian – a modified human who can cancel out the orogenes power and kill them if necessary. Jemisin therefore questions whether some sort of oppression or “regulation” or constraint of liberty is essential if the people in question threaten civil society. And her response, which is loud and clear once you come to the end of the novel, is that there’s no such thing as a bit of oppression or a smidgen of slavery. Whatever the original justification the end result always ends in suffering – or in the case of The Fifth Season the end of the world. The point I’m trying to make is that Jemisin’s discussion on oppression is as layered and complex as the world she’s created.
This is a great novel and, hopefully, the beginning of a major series in the field.
* Ok, Ok, I’m also eagerly anticipating the third book in Dave Hutchinson’s Europe series.
I also read Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett which was nominated for a Kitschie and which I will hopefully be reviewing elsewhere. I liked it, I think it has some interesting things to say about identity, power and privilege. The central conceit is a 30 something unemployed Nigerian man waking up one morning Franz Kafka style to discover he’s white. But there’s an element of the novel – specifically where the author intrudes into the narrative – that didn’t work for me at all.
Anyway, I’ll inform you all if and when the review is published.