Book Review: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

I’d had this book recommended to me several times before I finally sat down with it, a dystopian fantasy written by a Brooklyn author who, I can only guess, uses initials for her first two names because, like J.K. Rowling, she is a she. And for a story to sell, sometimes it’s still a suggested business move to not flaunt one’s gender when one is taking groundbreaking steps in literature, which I’d say this book does.

Surrounding the adventures of three characters (a little girl heading to a new school for her special abilities, a woman in the midst of a thriving career directly tied to her special abilities, and a mother seeking vengeance on her husband who killed their child because he inherited her special abilities) who each have the “special ability” to, essentially, shift the plates of the earth with their minds, which means they could lose their temper and collapse the roof of city hall on all of its politicians, or they can prevent cataclysmic earthquakes which are a constant threat in this world.

The book received great reviews, won the 2016 Hugo Award, and was, in my opinion, a breezy read but substantive, though not in a bruising way. And sometimes sad with just the right amount of lightness and life coloring its edges.

Ironically, I started reading The Fifth Season because I’ve had no appetite for weighty political discourse lately, and yet I couldn’t help but notice how politicized these three characters were because of their abilities, even down to how their wombs are legislated.

Ironically, I started reading The Fifth Season because I’ve had no appetite for weighty political discourse lately, and yet I couldn’t help but notice how politicized these three characters were because of their abilities, even down to how their wombs are legislated. They can quite literally shape the world with their minds, or put the brakes on the world which may try to kill them with an earthquake or its subsequent volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. And that makes them dangerous in the eyes of others, which ultimately makes them political, even if they have no stomach for such things.

So, maybe it wasn’t the perfect escape from today’s world, but it did work, for me anyway, as a great conversation in relation to today’s world. About how the very planet may try to crush you, and your ability to defy that intention might intimidate the people around you. About how it might feel to be born into a circumstance dictated by nature, or the gods, or whatever on one side, and the powers that live in ivory towers on the other — and what it looks like to carve your own path through this world nonetheless, defying outside pressures not out of any brilliant intent but just from a simple need to live, and breathe, and shrug off the bullshit of those who would be the narrator of your story. About the cost we pay to have a life, I suppose, and what that experience means on a personal level.

Ultimately, I liked this book both for its entertainment (interesting characters, funny moments) and sociological (you know, nerd shit) value. And yet I’m still not exactly sure what else about it intrigued me, though I do suspect there was something else to it. Maybe I’ll have a better sense once I dig into its sequel.