Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.
“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”
Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.
“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”
By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.
“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”
In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).
“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”
One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.
Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.
My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars