Book review: The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season actually came out in 2015, so this isn’t exactly a breaking news review of the first book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth series — but it’s the first time I had a chance to sit down and read it. Jemisin is one of the guests of honour at this year’s Sirens Conference, so I wanted to make sure I was up to date on her work, because I always feel like I get so much more out of opportunities to meet guests of honour when I’ve delved deeply into their writing, and I always enjoy delving into Jemisin’s.

This series revolves around a land that is highly susceptible to plate tectonics. Maybe it’s some previous or future iteration of Earth. Maybe it’s another world. At this particular point in time, the story revolves around a single massive continent that is experiencing tremendous upheaval, with geology tearing both the earth and the culture apart and sending the continent’s residents into a period of extreme deprivation.

These periodic cataclysms are familiar enough to be known as ‘seasons,’ to have a circular recurrence in society and culture. Everyone lives with the continual awareness that the world around them could crack apart and unleash chaos at any moment. Some of that chaos, though, is kept in check by people who are…not quite people. Orogenes, you see, have the power to reach deep into the world, to harness the power of rock and earth to halt (or trigger) geologic activity. A group of orogenes live in the heart of the capital city, trained and maintained to serve human society, while others are feral, hiding from the humans who hate and fear them.

At first, this appears to be a book of three different stories — one of cataclysm, one of a young orogene setting out on her training, one of a trained and skilled woman conducting work for the empire. Gradually, these stories pull together until you realise that they are about the same woman at radically different stages of her career, and you see the full flower of the way that society abuses orogenes, both hating them and forcing them to harness their power, expecting that they will give of themselves for the common good while treating them abominably.

Jemisin is a fantastic writer, and the story she weaves is lively and engaging and compelling, painting a vivid landscape filled with memorable, interesting people. The layers of the plot are further complicated by the nuance of the culture that surrounds it, because she’s an impeccable worldbuilder and it shows. I don’t want to go into extravagant length about the story, because I want to delve into some fascinating things she does around both gender and race.

The thoughtful work behind the cultural values of the book shows through in elements like the complicated systems of naming developed on the basis of the trades people are born into and expected to perform, and in the sharp lines drawn between orogenes and everyone else. While humans have names reflecting their trade and origins, the orogenes are known only as orogenes, distilled to the essence of the thing that terrifies and enrages humans. More than this, though, Jemisin both describes characters racially in thoughtful, delicious detail, and does so in a way that’s very telling — you understand which physical traits are valued and which are not through the very language she uses.

She’s also developed a society where people are bred to look a particular way or to have specific traits, with some communities taking breeding extremely seriously. It’s a very clear and vivid reminder of how humans in power have held and bred captives for thousands of years, breeding people not just for traits like being strong workers, but also appearance — whatever a prized appearance might resemble for given people in a given era. If these subjects make readers uncomfortable, they should; in the United States, slave owners bred the humans they regarded as their property, not caring about their own autonomy and desires, searching for slaves with the ‘best’ genetics. Searching for people who were hardy and strong, or attractive by white, slaveowning standards. Members of the Black community in the U.S. today who were descended from slaves are well aware of the history of rape and forced birth in their ancestry.

And she’s challenging gender in some interesting ways. Someone commented that one of her characters is trans, but the character doesn’t use that word, nor does anyone else. Is she trans, or does the culture think of gender differently than we do? In several scenes, we see a very fluid approach to gender and one in which genitals are not necessarily determinant — and not in a way that suggests characters think of themselves as transgender, either. They just are who they are, and their genitals or the medications they take to change the balance of their hormones aren’t as relevant as readers might want to think they are.

It’s complicated to have conversations about gender as a social construct, but this book raises some interesting questions about the depictions of gender diversity in fantasy. If society doesn’t have a construct of transness, but simply identifies, say, women as ‘women’ if they say they’re women, should we be forcing that label on people? In the real world, the contemporary world, people need to identify with frameworks that work for them and many people whom you might think of as trans identify that way — but conversely, some people you might label trans actually aren’t. The Fifth Season pokes at that, looking at how the way we think about gender is influenced by our social makeup and setting. I don’t favour forcing labels on anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t start here — but it’s interesting that many cis people leap to identify characters that don’t fit into their worldview as trans, because that’s the understanding they find most familiar and comforting.

Image: amethyst, Melissa Collins, Flickr