I picked up The Fifth Season for two reasons: one, it’s by N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance Trilogy I greatly enjoyed, and two, it recently won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Those two reasons are why when I was tempted to put the book down and walk away (twice in the first fifty pages), I kept going.
The Fifth Season starts slow, or as slow as a book that starts with a murder and a cataclysm can. The story is told from three different perspectives, and each viewpoint character (and their supporting cast) needs to be introduced. One viewpoint is told entirely in the second person. There is a lot of setup.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of payoff, too. Jemisin is really good at fitting things together, at making these disparate accounts converge in a satisfying way. She’s a master of world-building – the Stillness feels rich and alive, with a deep history.
The Fifth Season takes place in a world that is literally coming apart. Earthquakes and volcanoes are a constant threat, and everyone knows the rules for living through a “fifth season” – an extra-long winter brought on by the ash and dust kicked up by an event. Orogenes are people with the power to control the earth, and they are used to quiet quakes and protect the empire.
This is not a happy story. It begins with the murder of one child and the loss of another. Orogones are seen as monsters or tools to be controlled rather than human, and that attitude is reflected in their treatment. The school for orogones is like a Hogwarts run entirely by Umbridges. The empire is built on a system of castes and oppression. And from the beginning, the book tells you this is a story of the end.
Oh, but what an end.
Read if you like: interesting magic systems, deep world-building, diverse characters.
Avoid if you don’t like: Constant impending doom.