This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze, the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
If there’s ever a book that combines phenomenal world building, poignant character development and characters, and untouchable commentary that spans systems of oppression, racism, power imbalances, and climate decline, it’s The Fifth Season. N.K. Jeminisin is a veritable powerhouse of a writer. Her prose is as tight and beautiful as her story is mesmerizing.
It’s gritty. It’s dark. But in terms of how well a fantasy can take something that is truly as dark as systematic oppression and slavery and adequately handle its complexities and nuances, that grittiness and darkness is every bit earned and used to its fullest potential. Parts of this book made me put it down, because for as unique and utterly alien the world of the Stillness is, it is so harrowingly real that it’s hard not to react viscerally when reading. This wasn’t to The Fifth Season’s detriment; I think the point was to react, and to react deeply.
Let’s get into it.
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; Death is the fifth, and master of all.
The Fifth Season brings us to the Stillness, a land I feel was somewhat ironically named given the turbulent changes that it undergoes during its decade-to-centuries long apocalypse-level climate events known as seasons. The Stillness, dotted in close-nit, paranoid comms, bares the scars of past civilizations that didn’t survive their own seasons. The fear of another permeates every aspect of the Stills’ lives, from the stockpiling of stores to the hyper-awareness of the survivability a person has based off differences in hair texture or the make-up of their bodies.
The reality of another season looms over the people of the Stillness, but it’s not just the sudden onset of one that is the driving power behind The Fifth Season. It’s the volatile mix of this ominous reality filtered into the caste system that rules over the Stillness and plays into these fears with the subjugation of orogenes. It’s the way this world is laid as the foundation but not the focus of the story that happens between Essun, the mother who loses her child, Damaya, the girl torn from her home, and Syen, the woman the two that knits them together that made this book resound so deeply.
He’s made it. Not that she hadn’t known it before: that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body. It’s one thing to know this, to admit it to herself, but it’s the sort of truth that none of them use against each other – not even to make a point – because doing so is cruel and unnecessary. This is why she hates Alabaster: not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
At its root, The Fifth Season is a richly-built and unapologetic examination of power. Cycles of power, their imbalances, and their impact not only on the world at large but on the individual, were so profound that I found myself re-reading passages, thinking both about this pock-marked, burned, and crumbling world, and our own. The Stillness isn’t just a fiction, but a reality, one that is shown unfiltered through the eyes of three women who see the worst of it all, converging into a singular story line that refuses to sugar coat what it means to be oppressed, and the complexities of life without freedom in a world that has no intention of changing at any pace but its own.
We could argue the point in The Fifth Season is equally the horrors of the natural world and the terror of what humans can do to others, but even in the seasons themselves there’s an air so oppressive it’s hard to consider that the seasons themselves aren’t also, in some way, subjugating the people of The Stillness. The stunning thing about this is how well Jemisin works all of this together. It’s seamless. Flawless.
The Fifth Season is a book that needs digested, mulled. I’ve finished it, and feel I’ve only scratched the tiniest little bit off the surface. It is beautifully written and tragic. It is necessary. Jemisin’s characters are painfully real, as is the story. This book belongs on everyone’s shelves, and as the first book in a trilogy, is well worth the commitment to a longer story.