Epic Fantasy … not a genre I tend to embrace or even explore. Fantasy demands the recounting of history and often-lengthy explanations of natural phenomena in order to set the stage, and I can appreciate that fact. In my limited experience, however, my interest wanes if the efforts at “world-building” overshadow the development and depth of character. In “The Fifth Season”, N. K. Jemisin surpasses all expectations and overcomes any biases I presented. Jemisin breathes life into characters that are interesting, sympathetic, and dynamic.
One of the most striking characteristics of this novel – three storylines plaited in a complex braid- is the writing of one storyline in second person, a jarring experience that reads almost like a role playing game at first. But after a while, this conceit flows more smoothly, begins to make sense to the overall story, and certainly involves the reader in an extraordinary way.
Jesimin also sprinkles in an authorial version of self-deprecation, occasionally mocking the official narrative language, thus charming a skeptical, even reluctant reader.
“‘I don’t give a shit what the something-somethingth council of the big important farts decreed, or how the geomests classify things, or any of that. That we’re not human is just a lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us.'”
While this tongue-in-cheek aside allows Jemisin, through one of her characters, to wink at her readers and break from the formal language of the world she has created, it is also one of many indictments of the prejudicial and exclusionary practices of the world these characters inhabit. In one of her chapter-ending excerpts from the region’s lore, Jemisin pulls no punches and leaves no question of the knowing, eyes-wide-open, conscious decision generations of this society have made to exclude and exploit.
“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”
As a black woman living in a world (and immersing herself in a profession) dominated by white men, Jemisin’s take on this inveterate racism reads powerful and personal. Her own experiences in our prejudiced society likely inform and color her fantasy world, as well, and they almost certainly explain her bent towards the dark, which she eloquently justifies in an aside deep into her story.
“Perhaps you think it wrong that I dwell so much on the horrors, the pain, but pain is what shapes us, after all. We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement.”
Neither she nor her characters, however, abide the loss of hope, no matter how fleeting. Even one of her most jaded, world-wearied characters finds herself noting that “neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.”
N.K. Jemisin applies her vivid imagination and her command of language – real and imagined – to thoroughly engage her readers. The Fifth Season was a riveting, fast-paced read. The world she has created here is one I hope I never encounter and expect I will never forget.