This review is spoiler free so, whether you’ve read the book or not, enjoy!
Everyone knows the world is going to end. Again.
Nobody expects it to happen during their lifetime.
But here it is.
The Fifth Season is the first of a trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, set in a world where people are in a constant state of semi-preparedness for the next world-ending disaster. Stories are passed down of previous ‘Seasons’, catastrophes that wipe out large swathes of humanity at a time, and the people of the present do their best to live by the teachings from these previous events.
This story is told through three different perspectives, and one of the first things that struck me about the book was the way these different perspectives are used. Unlike in most multi-perspective stories, the three characters are at different points in time. So instead of getting different characters’ takes on the same events, the different characters are being used to give you different perspectives on, and context for, the event that starts the whole story: the end of the world.
The character who’s living closest to this, introduced to us in the immediate aftermath of the event that the story is built around, is Essun. Her chapters are, unusually, written in the second person, and while this takes some adjusting to I think ultimately it works well. Our other two POV characters are Damaya and Syenite, and although we don’t get an explicit description of where they are time-wise in relation to the destruction it becomes quickly apparent that they’re living in the Before. Through them we get to explore the world Jemisin has crafted, while Essun’s chapters let us observe that world falling apart. It’s a gripping combination, and one of the most interesting uses of multiple perspectives I’ve come across.
Of course, with any story using multiple perspectives it’s hard not to have a favourite. Although Essun’s second person chapters are effective at bringing the reader right into the action, I found it meant I didn’t have as strong a sense of her as a character and that made me less invested in her sections. I loved both Damaya and Syenite though, Syenite in particular because she’s got such a lot of fury and ambition fuelling her. Moving away from our POV characters; each new character introduced is distinct and interesting, and they all feel real, with even quite incidental characters having clear and realistic motivations. This is partly due to the strength of the character description work, but can also be credited to the strength of the worldbuilding Jemisin manages to deftly weave throughout the rest of the story.
Within very few chapters you get a strong sense of the tensions at play in the Stillness (the name of the continent on which the story is set), the way the different factions play off each other and the way fear lies underneath everything. Fear of the orogenes (the people born with the ability to manipulate the Earth), fear of the next Season, fear of the Earth itself. I think it also says a lot for Jemisin’s writing that, despite fear and hatred being constant motivating factors for a number of characters, the story moves along with enough lightness to make it an absolute pleasure to read.
There are horrific injustices in this world, some of which we discover along with the main characters, and the looming end of the world is always in the back of the reader’s mind, and yet I didn’t come away from the story feeling hopeless or down. I read the book cover to cover in just a couple of days, not because I wanted to escape the world but because I wanted to completely immerse myself in it.
And it is a world that rewards full immersion; Jemisin’s worldbuilding is excellent, clearly thoroughly considered and delivered with a light touch that enhances the story and never overshadows it. Each new revelation, whether new to the characters or just the reader, fit perfectly into the setting’s bigger picture, making it incredibly satisfying.
Of course there were things I didn’t love about the book. Although the character work is incredibly strong, I think some of the most personal moments between characters come across as awkward. The development of the relationships between characters was well done, but I never fully felt the pay-off of that development and I found that a little disappointing.
I also felt that there were moments when I would have liked a deeper exploration of the orogeny. I loved the way its use was described, and the bits and pieces we learn through Damaya’s lessons while she’s training, but there were moments when characters were performing feats which apparently shouldn’t have been possible, and the brief explanation of why this was so remarkable just confused me. That said, it’s a fine line to tread between over- and under-explaining any magic system, and I think Jemisin has done far better than many I’ve seen in creating a set of abilities that makes sense and is clear enough to be enjoyable while retaining a sense of mystery, so I don’t want to harp on this one.
Given it’s the first book in a trilogy, The Fifth Season does a very good job at tying up enough plot threads to make for a satisfying conclusion while clearly leaving room for continuation through the next books.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this story to any lovers of fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian fiction, although the language and themes might make it inappropriate for younger or more sensitive readers. Gritty, intense and wonderfully intricate, this is a world you can dive headfirst into.