The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – A Paragon of SFF Worldbuilding and Storytelling

The moment you step through the boundary and enter The Pond, you feel a tremor in the earth. Alert, you run towards the pond, worried that your little pond friends may be hurt or afraid of the earthquake. But as you approach, you can feel the crackle of magic in the air and things don’t seem frantic, just its usual calm. Less worried and now curious, you call out for your pond friends.

“Over here, friend!” you hear a voice call out.

You follow the voice and see a little mess by the Pond; its usual terrain is uneven and you see tiny oval-shaped prints on the dirt. By the water, you see Xiaolong standing with her arms held up for balance. She raises her little foot, and the moment her foot meets the ground – ruuuuuumbleeeeee! The ground beneath you shakes and you have to steady yourself. Xiaolong giggles in delight.
Xiaolong the axolotl, her arms raised by her sides, feet apart; her left foot has created the earth to tremor and rise (casting earth-magic).
“Hi friend!” she says, scurrying over to you (and thankfully not causing mini-earthquakes with every step). “I just read the most amazing book and when I told Varian about it, they taught me this earth-magic spell. Look what I can do!” She readies her stance again, arms wide, determined face, lifts her foot, and stomps! The earth shakes, and the earth rises around her tiny foot. Again, she giggles, happy to feel the magic within the earth.

You tell her that it’s a great spell (and also a little terrifying), but what you are really curious about is this book that inspired her.

“Oh, of course!” she says. She picks up her staff, and with a wave of her staff and a grumble from the earth, the pond’s terrain rights and evens itself out. “I think this may be one of the most unique and inspiring books I’ve read, friend! It’s called, The Fifth Season…

Text: THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin. Round 'button' on bottom-right showing

Summary:

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.

My review:

The Fifth Season is the sort of book where its reputation precedes itself. This was indeed the case for me; I had heard nothing but unanimous and high praises for this book (indeed, each book of the trilogy has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a ROW), for its worldbuilding, writing, storytelling, and its compelling story. After joining the ranks of fans of this trilogy and experiencing withdrawal after finishing this book so intense that I laid in bed and ruminated about the story – what can I say? Everyone was right. The Fifth Season is brilliant.

A NOTE: HIGH INVESTMENT, HIGH REWARD

I should be transparent with you all: like a few others, it took me a long time to get invested in The Fifth Season. However, this is not at all indicative of the quality of the book. The Fifth Season is indeed very dense and the unique storytelling took me some time to get used to, especially at the beginning. But, once you habituate to the writing, get a hang of the terms unique to the book’s setting, The Stillness, and gradually become invested and curious about the story’s three wonderful narrators, you will be hooked and you will have no regrets. (Listen: I read this book on a plane. And as someone who is nothing more but deadweight and airsickness on an airseat, I absolutely could not stop reading this book. I hope that testifies to how hopelessly hooked I was.)

SIMPLE STORIES INTERTWINED WITH A RICH AND DETAILED WORLD

Set in a supercontinent called The Stillness, this land is torn apart every few hundred years by widespread geological events called Fifth Seasons. Humans live in The Stillness, as well as orogenes – people who can manipulate thermal and kinetic energy. The Fifth Season, then, follows three narrators: Damaya, a young girl taken to the Fulcrum to train as an orogene; Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained young woman who goes on a mission with a ‘ten-ringer’ orogene and discovers a secret; and Essun, a mother in a quest of revenge after her husband murders their son and kidnaps their daughter. Each storyline was fascinating, offering a detailed and immersive perspective of each character’s unique struggles within The Stillness as they try to survive in an unforgiving land that is grossly unkind to orogenes.

The worldbuilding of The Fifth Season has been praised time and time again – and with good reason. The Stillness may be a harsh and unforgiving land, but it is also complex and rich with its unique history, cultures, structures, and institutions. Chief of all, and most prominent, was how the language of The Stillness not only interwove with the storytelling and narration, but also underscored the prevalent attitudes and social structures within the book’s world. Furthermore, The Stillness is palpably vast and mysterious, and never ever feels obtuse or more complicated than it needs be. Indeed, the worldbuilding in The Fifth Season is unparalleled, and easily recommended reading for those who crave to explore imaginative worlds.

DISCOURSE AND STORY POETICALLY AND ASTUTELY TOLD

My general rule is this: good SFF should have discourse, and that SFF without discourse is not-SFF with SFF elements. The Fifth Season, I can confidently say, is indeed great SFF – not only for its discourse, but also for the way it is subtly portrayed and articulated. Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are at different points of their lives, and thus experience oppression within The Stillness in distinctly different ways. As such, The Fifth Season offers a complex picture of systemic oppression, its power and pervasiveness, and how it dictates and shapes the lives of the three characters. What particularly struck me was that, underlying the story, was one about survival – not just surviving in such a harsh world, but also surviving in a world that dehumanises you, hates you, but begrudgingly needs you. Jemisin masterfully navigates the complex and dual nature of oppression, to the extent that The Stillness felt like a place where I could deconstruct and analyse its socio-political structures and historythat was the level of detail that The Fifth Season promises.

Balanced with commentary on oppression and survival is one also about freedom. For all the tragedy and misfortunes that the three characters endure, they are far from subjects of pity and pain. Indeed, what makes Damaya, Syen, and Essun such great characters is their gravitation towards freedom, in one form or another. The three women resist, they challenge, they question, they fight, and thus are agents of brilliant and engaging stories. You want them to overcome, to win, and to find what they are looking for. And for a story that is frank with its allegories to society, their journeys are amazing things.

MESMERISING STORYTELLING

Perhaps the allegories and discourses of The Fifth Season do not interest you – in which, I would still recommend this story wholeheartedly. The story is well-crafted, thoughtful, and well-realised, and is truly unlike anything I have read before – let alone unlike any SFF I have read before. The inspired genius evident in The Fifth Season pushes the boundaries of genre and imagination. It transcends cookie-cutter tropes of SFF, and traverses unexplored territory.

And the plot twists! Though I anticipated what might have happened, it won’t be the plot twists themselves or what happens that get to you. Rather, it’s the stunning and intricate developments that lead to the plot twists and the implications and consequences that the developments had on the characters I came to care deeply for. Furthermore, the developments set up an exciting foundation for the sequel, which I am excited to read.

MY CONCLUSION: I RECOMMEND THE FIFTH SEASON

I loved The Fifth Season, and it is indeed absolutely deserving of its high praises, accolades, and more. The storytelling is brilliant, the story and its developments are exciting, and the worldbuilding is complex and compelling. The only obstacle I would expect for readers starting out The Fifth Season would be that it does take a while to get into the story, but once you start and get into it – it will be absolutely worth it. Indeed, The Fifth Season is easily one of my favourite SFF novels that I have read in 2018.

Goodreads | Book Depository | My short review on Goodreads


Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: Set in The Stillness where natural cataclysms called ‘Fifth Seasons’ destroy and change the world, the story follows Essun as she pursues her husband who killed one child and has kidnapped the other.

Perfect for: Readers who love complex worldbuilding; are on the lookout for unique SFF; like a balance of discourse and a compelling story.

Think twice if: You aren’t particularly in the mood for a heavy read that requires a lot of investment.

Genre: adult science-fiction/fantasy

Trigger/content warnings: child slavery, child abuse, gore, murder, death, cannibalism, discrimination/racism


Let’s discuss!

I had been told to read The Fifth Season for as long as I can remember and, when I finished it, I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner! This is definitely a brilliant book, one that I recommend to everyone, especially fantasy lovers.

  • Have you read The Fifth Season? What did you think?
  • What is the most unique book that you’ve ever read? Do you have any recommendations?
  • I love fantasy with political and social commentary and discourse. What was the last fantasy book that you read that was political as well?
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8 thoughts on “The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – A Paragon of SFF Worldbuilding and Storytelling

  1. Great review! I picked up The Fifth Season after hearing it spoken of by one of the booktubers I follow, and agree with all you’ve said – it does take a commitment, and you really have to sit down and be ready to invest in this world and pay attention, but when you do the pay off is so great. I loved all the storylines, was never waiting for one character’s chapter to finish so I could get to the next (which is common for me in multiple POV stories). It’s taken me a bit of time to be ready to read the sequel, but I’m planning on getting to The Obelisk Gate this month!

    One of the fantasy books that deals a bit with political issues but is also quite a unique fantasy is the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn – following a theatre group (in a world that deals with more magical theatre) as they deal with themselves, society (highly species-ist when most people are of mixed magical descent!) but also the machinations at the courts they play at. I adore these books, and it’s the same sort of situation where you do have to be willing to take some time to get a feel for the world, and once you do it’s amazing!

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  2. YES YES YES! I am so glad you read this book! The Broken Earth series is one of my favorites of all time and I am so happy you loved it too. The second book gets even better because it’s more character-driven while the first book mostly set up the stage for the main characters. I personally love how Jemisin backed up the fantasy aspects of this book with science and then shaped the entire society to fit in with the setting. And she doesn’t overemphasize on the issues that she discusses in this book–it flows naturally and the story overall explores how such systematic oppression comes to be, which I think is amazing.

    Ugh I wrote you an essay–I can’t help it, I get so excited when I hear anyone talking about this book! Do read the second book soon! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts ❤

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  3. High investment, high reward is a good description! I will forever be mad at myself though that I never purchased book 2 and 3 right away. Because it’s such a complex book, it’s over a year later and I just… DON’T REMEMBER. When I buy them, I’ll be rereading, because I was absolutely in love with the ideas in that book.
    Great review!

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  4. Oh CW! So glad you enjoyed this one! I think I’m honestly going to wait a few more years or so, because heavy SFF (specifically fantasy) isn’t really my jam, but I’m so glad you found another book you loved!

    I want to hear about all of your (and Xiaolong’s) favorites!

    (also did I tell you my parents are in NYC eating xiao long bao without me? I KNOW. the audacity.)

    Liked by 1 person

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