'The Fifth Season' - Book Review

The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemisin
Orbit/Hachette, 465 pages

N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season was much recommended, including winning a Hugo award. Various chapters follow the lives of three women - the young Damaya, the adult (but young) Syenite, and the middle-aged Essun. Their world is subject to occasional violent geological action, which sometimes results in an apocalyptic and civilization-ending period of death and destruction lasting some multiple of "several years." These periods are known as "the Fifth Season." The very first chapter has someone deliberately causing such a season. As you read, it becomes clear fairly soon that only one of our three heroines is living through this Fifth Season. But all three of them are "orogenes," people who are able to cause or control geologic events to a greater or lesser extent.

The writing is pretty good. The ideas are a bit crazy, but mostly interesting: she's constructed a big damaged society based on unusual skills and old technology that the characters don't understand. She uses second person writing ("You" rather than "I" or "she/he") for all of the Essun chapters: this is a literary novelty that I've strongly objected to in the past. But my objection was created almost entirely for/by Charlie Stross's Halting State - he wrote the entire book in second person, across three different characters. It didn't work. I'll grudgingly admit that it worked fairly well for Essun, because she's so dissociated from herself - and because Jemisin had the good sense to limit this stylistic choice to one person and thus only part of the book.

But the ending ... A wrong move on the ending can explode all the good will in the world. And with the ending of this book, Jemisin says "you expected wrap-up?" followed by maniacal laughter. It's a "fuck you" full stop in the middle of the action that answers nothing. If someone had said "this series is three books that are essentially one huge book," I might have tolerated this behaviour. But there was no warning, and I'm seriously pissed. I very much doubt I'll read the rest of the series, despite their unheard-of back-to-back-to-back Hugo awards ... As mentioned, I thought the writing was good, and spectacular would be required to overcome this faux pas.