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The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2016, 443 p

 The Fifth Season cover

The world contains a single supercontinent subject to perennial seismic disturbances via earthquake or volcanic eruption. Its inhabitants call this uncertain land The Stillness. Certain of them have the genetic capability to incite or direct the forces causing the upheavals. This arguably puts the book squarely in Fantasy territory but a Science-Fictional gloss is provided by the information that rogga (or orogenes, the term used depends on the speaker’s kindliness, or lack thereof, towards them) have organs known as sessapinae in their brain stems which confer the ability to sense and alter their surroundings and the rocks beneath, all the way down to the magma. Rogga are viewed with fear by the general populace and may be killed when discovered or else sent off to the Fulcrum in the great central city of Yumenes to be trained by Guardians into controlling their abilities for the greater good. A system of rings denotes adepts’ relative proficiencies (think belts in judo.) For the rest, life is mediated by a body of aphorisms known as stonelore.

The novel has three narrative viewpoints, sequentially interwoven through the early part of the book and carefully chosen by Jemisin to reflect her invented world. One strand is narrated in the second person (though by a woman called Essun whose husband Jija, before running away with their daughter, killed their toddler son when he in turn, in Essun’s absence, inadvertently revealed his rogga nature.) This strand is concerned with Essun’s search to be reunited with her daughter. We also experience the adolescent life of Damaya, a young girl whose frightened parents invite the Guardians to take her away to be trained and through whom the rigours and restrictions placed on an orogene are revealed. The third strand follows Syenite, a four-ring sent by the Fulcrum on a mission to clear the harbor of a town named Allia of an outgrowth of coral blocking shipping access. She is overseen by the ten-ring Alabaster (orogenes take the name of a rock when they achieve their first ring) in the hope the pair will produce orogenically gifted offspring. Neither Syenite nor Alabaster is particularly keen on this requirement. Their lack of agency in this and other regards is explicitly compared to slavery, which of course it is. Though it becomes obvious later on that the three strands are not contemporaneous each is narrated in the present tense. In addition every chapter has an epigraph (derived from stonelore) but only at its end.

Internal evidence implies that this world may be our Earth long after a geological catastrophe killed off most of humanity with only a few surviving to repopulate the world, and their descendants experiencing a series of Fifth Seasons in which environmental consequences of seismic upheavals result in societal breakdowns. There is a degree of technological backwardness but only a degree. Transportation is on a human or animal powered scale (or sail in the case of ships) but yet, curiously, the society still has antibiotics and blood testing.

Jemisin’s characterisation is excellent. With the possible exception of the second person narrator (the choice of that mode inevitably involves a distancing, though Jemisin has good reason to employ it as Essun is trying to be as detached from her situation as possible,) the reader experiences the book’s denizens as real people. They are as complex and flawed as humans usually are. Though we know there must be a connection between Dayama, Syenite and Essun it is a considerable achievement by Jemisin that its form remains opaque till close to the book’s end.

This was certainly worthy of winning the Hugo Award in 2016. Its sequel The Obelisk Gate also won in 2017. I’ll certainly be looking out for both it and the third in Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, The Stone Sky, plus her previous novels.

Pedant’s corner:- as if sawed (sawn,) “takes a lot out of a you” (a lot out of you,) “these are just are shakes” (has one “are” too many,) aparatus (apparatus,) “gets ahold of himself” (gets a hold,) “but metal rusts” (metals corrode, but only iron rusts; you cannot get rust from any other metal,) “there’s iron ore in some of it and it’s rusted from the moisture in her skin” (iron ore does not rust; it is rust.) “None of you say anything” (None of you says anything,) Yumenes’ (Yumenes’s, which is used later,) “none of them are allowed to ..” (none of them is allowed to,) no opening quote mark when a chapter starts with a piece of dialogue, prestitious (prestigious,) adaption (context suggests adoption.)

Clarke Award 2014

I see Ancillary Justice has won this year’s Clarke Award.

Not having read three of the contenders I can’t really comment beyond saying the winner’s author, Ann Leckie, has clearly hit some sort of nerve as her book has also (jointly) won the BSFA Award and for good measure is on the Hugo Award ballot paper too.

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