Once again, I had no idea that this was another first book of a trilogy instead of a standalone. In retrospect I guess the titles were an obvious clue. The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for 2016 and the second book The Obelisk Gate won the same award for 2017. Then again, author N.K. Jemisin is hardly a stranger to the awards circuit. This however is the first book I’ve read by her as I’ve been out of the loop for a while.
The novel takes place on a deadly planet which is actively hostile towards the people who live on it. Its title refers to the sporadic periods of extreme conditions, the so-called Fifth Season, normally occurring once every few hundred years, during life becomes very difficult. Such conditions usually involve supervolcanoes, acid rain, continent-wide earthquakes and so on. A rare few of the people on this world are born as orogenes, mutants with the power to manipulate the energy of the earth. They are essential to keep quell the earth but are also feared and ostracized by normal people. The dominant political entity collects and trains those orogenes that it can, killing the rest, under an organization known as the Fulcrum. To do this, it employs the mysterious Guardians who seem able to disrupt the orogenes’ powers. This novel covers the narratives of three women, orogenes all. Through this, we learn the inner workings of the Fulcrum as well as the beginnings of a new Fifth Season, brought about deliberately by a powerful orogene.
The multiple narratives eventually come together in a twist that I won’t spoil here but wasn’t terribly difficult to guess for me. The prose is excellent, one of the best written genre works I’ve read in a while, and reminded me one of biggest differences between real published books and so much of the fanfiction and web fiction stuff I’ve been reading recently. This goes a long way towards painting a vivid picture of this horrifying world and the extremes that human society has gone to in order to survive. For example, stonelore is passed down from generation to generation to teach principles essential to surviving Fifth Seasons, such as shutting out strangers and rules on how buildings should be constructed. Even the biology of the organisms that live on that world have evolved in response with friendly herbivores in normal times becoming aggressive carnivores during a Fifth Season. The worldbuilding is fantastic and I found myself completely engrossed in the characters.
At its heart, The Fifth Season is what the X-Men stories have always wanted to be. The orogenes are incredibly powerful by the standards of normal people and are so feared that a father would kill his own child if he discovered he has those powers. Yet their world is so dangerous that human civilization would not be able to exist without them. The characters behave in believable ways and so easily earn the sympathy of readers. In keeping with modern trends, there are elements of homosexuality and transexualism here but they’re not central to the plot. It makes sense that whatever prejudice conventional society has against individuals of different sexualities pales in comparison to how hated orogenes are.
My biggest gripe might be that finishing this left me wanting more as this first novel feels like merely setting the stage for its sequel. We learn plenty about the Fulcrum but almost nothing about the Guardians, the obelisks or the Stone-Eaters. I had thought that this novel was longer than it is because the last few dozen pages actually consist of a glossary and previews of other novels by the author. Needless to say I enjoyed this novel very much and will be onboard for the next book. It’s a great fantasy novel that feels hip and contemporary while taking place in a larger context that feels very sci-fi. Highly recommended and a great pick for best novel of the year.