book review

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”

I have worshiped from afar the intellectual ground N.K. Jemisin walks on for awhile now, without ever having read one of her books. I’ve been reading Jemisin articles and essays and speeches, and I love her.

‘Scene: I’m reading some fat fantasy book set in Yet Another Faux Medieval Europe. Nothing in this story jibes with my understanding of actual medieval Europe. There’s no fantasy version of the Silk Road bringing spices and agricultural techniques and ideas from China and India and Persia. There’s been no Moorish conquest. There aren’t even Jewish merchants or bankers, stereotypical as that would be.
Everyone in this “Europe” looks the same but for minor variations of hair or eye color. They speak the same language, worship the same gods — and everyone, even the very poor people, seems inordinately concerned with the affairs of the nobility, as if there’s nothing else going on that matters. There are dragons and magic in the story, but it’s the human fantasy that I’m having trouble swallowing.’

-N.K. Jemisin, from “How Long ’til Black Future Month?”

I’m someone who’s writing a fantasy that isn’t set in a patriarchy, isn’t remotely inspired by any sort of Europe, has no straight protagonists. N.K. Jemisin didn’t give me the urge to write what I write – I’ve had the same urge since I was a little kid (make it queer make it queer make it queer), but she gave me a guidebook through the garbage that is nearly every fantasy book I’ve ever read.

“Stereotypical fantasy series like, say, The Lord of the Rings, usually present a virtuous status quo threatened by a dark and eventually defeated outsider. But Jemisin’s stories almost always involve a flawed order, and the efforts (also flawed) to overthrow it.”

-Noah Bertlasky, from The Guardian

I think that’s why it took me so long to read her fiction, ironically. Because she means so much to me. I was afraid I wouldn’t like her books.

But finally I picked one up.

Do you know the feeling when you first sit down to watch a movie, or first hear a new song, or taste a new meal, and you just think, “Oh. This is good.” That’s how I felt dipping into The Fifth Season.

When I started the novel I was rocking a crying baby while talking to my sister while trying to keep open the book with one hand, but when I absorbed that first paragraph, everything else blurred away. I was sucked into Jemisin’s world – Jemisin’s writing. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I liked it. I could feel Jemisin’s hand tugging me in a new direction, and I didn’t know where she’d take me, but I knew I wanted to go there.

In the world of The Fifth Season, armageddon has struck again and again over the millennia. Nature here is cruel, and only people are crueler: Out of the wreckage formed an imperial civilization that promises survival in exchange for power.

The most marginalized people are the orogenes, who have the superhuman ability to move the earth. It’s interesting that the most exploited and abused are the ones who have the potential to move mountains from birth.

Father Earth is right to despise you, but do not be ashamed. You may be a monster, but you are also great.

I like that it’s strength that’s marginalized here, because so often we rationalize prejudice by blaming the victims of it, pointing out the thing they lack that the suppressor possesses. But that’s not how power structures work or form. Jemisin knows this, and she creates a perfectly believable world with a convincing history, in which literal humanized weapons are unable to fight their way to equal treatment.

“I will tear the whole world apart if they ever hurt us again.”

But we would still be hurt, she thinks.

Oh, and did I mention quite a bit of it is in second person? And that it totally works? I know second person works in fiction from long, teenage years of reading experimental fanfiction, but the publishing world and your English teachers will tell you there’s no such possibility, just like your history teachers probably never mentioned black people in Medieval Europe. But Jemisin sees through the garbage.

Her prose is simultaneously experimental and seamless, easy reading with beautiful writing. She deserts punctuation periodically in a kind of way that could be kitschy but isn’t; it’s reflective of the quaking, shaking, breaking world she’s depicting and

sometimes the rules need to be broken, and a kind of poetry forms out of the prose. While never distracting from the story. It’s really, really cool.

The world sucked me in, and the next day I went out to get its sequel and N.K. Jemisin’s debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. This is the kind of fantasy I’ve always yearned for. This is Jemisin, showing me, again, how it’s done.

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