We’re excited to share the last in a mini-series of posts by friend of Sirens, B R Sanders, who has been reviewing books by each of this year’s Guests of Honor during their featured weeks. This week we welcome their review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season!
I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.
The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people whose immense magic can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet. And to understand how it happened, one has to understand how many injustices—small and large, premeditated and coincidental—came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.
It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.
There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am White, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here about what it is to be Black—the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.
But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.
The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.
B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer speculative fiction writer who lives and works in Denver, Colorado, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K–12 public education data specialist. They write about queer elves, mostly.