Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

There has been an N.K. Jemisin book on my Top Ten of the Year lists for two of the last three years. (The year there wasn't one was just because I hadn't read one of her books that year.) She has fast become one of my favourite authors, one I expect great things from, and regularly find them. She's so good at complexity, at innovation, at examining power, at telling damn good stories. I will predict now that this year will be another that will find one of her books in my top ten.

Because Fifth Season is so fucking good, guys. I've been trying to explain why to people without spoilers, for the better part of a week, and it mostly comes down to earnest gestures and repetitions of how how fucking good it is. It is. Read it. My god, this book is good. It's not easy - it's more often devastating than anything else. It's one of those books that guts you even as you enjoy it.

One of the aspects of Jemisin's writing that I enjoy much is how complex the cultures she creates are, how thoughtful their outgrowth from a history she has created, and most specifically, how, when there is more than one culture in the mix, one is not the "good one," and one the "bad." That shit will not fly here - she's really good at finding knife's-edges of difficult ethical dilemmas, and creating characters for those dilemmas to imprison, injure, or alter. But it's never as simplistic as just wanting one side to win.

Take, for example, orogenes, those who can control the seismic movements of Father Earth. Okay, let me take a step back to explain about the world, before I can talk about orogenes. It is a world that has survived many Fifth Seasons, although many civilizations and settlements (deadcivs and comms) have fallen in the process. The Fifth Season is a term for a winter that lasts longer than six months, says the glossary, and sometimes much longer than that. In a world with frequent seismic disruption, ash clouds from volcanoes covering the sky, and other manifestations that make a convincing case that Father Earth hates the people who live upon him, much has been lost, and what is salvaged is held in those places that have survived multiple Seasons.

A large city houses a civilization that has lasted, so far, for hundreds of years, which is quite an accomplishment in this world. Part of why they have is the orogenes. The orogenes can sense and tap into seismic energy (to what extent varies by person.)  The survival of people depends on the orogenes, and to what extent does that justify the ways in which they are used and abused? Because essential as they are to continued survival, orogenes are also enslaved, denigrated, and frequently, killed.

But it's not that simple - orogenes are dangerous. Control can be lost, and an orogene losing control can mean a lot of dead people. The fear that leads to how badly they are treated is, in part, earned.  But not all. It has grown, as fears do, and the more power the orogenes can wield, the more intensely they are hunted and controlled. There is no easy here, and much that is obviously wrong, and yet, it is never quite as simple as you might like it to be.

In this, we follow three orogene women - a mother who has hidden her abilities, mourning the loss of her child to murder when someone found out what he was; a girl taken from her family under the control of the Guardians and trained; a student, earning the rings that denote her ability, sent out on a mission under one of the more proficient orogenes ever - and expected to get pregnant and bear a child by him, to be turned over to the Guardians.

Much of this book is about motherhood, in complex ways, and how these women's lives are shaped by what they are and what they can do. How they connect, I will leave for readers to find out. Which, if you haven't read this yet, please do so immediately. It's just that fucking good.

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