Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
Seismic activity ravages the lone continent of the world populated with humans, sentient beings called stone eaters, and orogenes–humans feared for their ability to control the earth on instinct. Occasionally, the destruction wreaked by the continent’s earthquakes would give rise to a Season–an extended era of turmoil during which entire civilizations would collapse and be lost to memory. The longest lasting of these is the empire of Sanze, whose thousand year reign ends at the beginning of the novel. In present time, a woman named Essun sets off to find her husband, the man who killed their son and then took off with their daughter. In the past, a young girl ostracized by her family and wanted dead by her community for being an orogene is taken into the center of the Sanze empire to receive training at the Fulcrum, where she will learn to serve the empire by stilling and redirecting earthquakes. A different timeline follows Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained Imperial Orogene sent on a mission with a madman who speaks more truth than she is willing to hear. At times brutally horrific, The Fifth Season is an incredible story of power, corruption, love, and the end of the world.
The Fifth Season dares to ask and demand an answer to a question that many franchises often skirt around–if there is a portion of a people who can with will alone cause immeasurable destruction, should they be given the same freedoms as everyone else? Should the government implement a system to control them and ensure such destruction never occurs? What if that means creating a culture of fear and hate against such powerful individuals? What if it means dehumanizing them? But what if, by controlling them through whatever means, you can protect the majority of the population from individuals who can shake the earth hard enough to start the end of the world?
Lately, movies such as Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse have pretended at answering these questions with what I find unsatisfactory results. N. K. Jemisin not only dares to confront these questions head-on, but also forces her readers to think deeply about accountability, personhood, and collateral damage.
N. K. Jemisin is a master of world building. She excels at showing us this incredibly nuanced world piece by piece, leaving the reader to make connections and infer hierarchies. Although she has a narrator explicate the occasional backstory, it never feels like an info-dump. The Fifth Season slowly unravels it’s mysteries, making the reader earn each new revelation.
Most importantly, Jemisin creates a world of diversity–diversity of race, gender, and sexual orientation–that is extremely rare for the high fantasy genre. So often high fantasy follows a European Medieval pattern where the dominant race is white and where (maybe) the foreign nations are described as being darker skinned. Jemisin takes that trope and throws it out the window. The continent of the Stillness has people of differing nonwhite races; the Sanze race in charge is described as having dark skin and gray afros. Beyond racial diversity, Jemisin seamlessly includes transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters and a variety of different amorous and sexual relationships. She does this with such ease and with such efficacy that it makes you wonder why so many fantasy authors don’t do the same.