The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, Orbit books, 2015 (Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award)

Yes, I’m now at the point where I have actually started to read the books given to me for Christmas by my DDD (Dearest Darling Daughter).  DDD is an admirer of fantasy fiction and I’ve had many enjoyable hours reading her Christmas picks.

The opening of ‘The Fifth Season’ reminds me of the old television series ‘Columbo’.  If you remember Peter Falk’s detective show, it always began by showing the criminal doing the crime so there was no doubt as to who did it, the mystery was how Detective Columbo was going to prove they did it.  Jemisin’s entire story is headed towards the destruction of the world but she’s chosen to start the story at the fiery end.  From the final cataclysm she works back in leaps and side bounds until once again the final destruction is before the reader.  This might leave some feeling like they’ve been dumped into the deep end – swim as you sort out the unfamiliarity of a new world and a cast of unusual characters and hope you don’t sink before you’ve made sense of things.  She also uses an unusual style of narration – the first person voice using ‘you’ (‘you do this and that’ as opposed to ‘I did this and that’).  By and large the style brings immediacy to the characters although it can sometimes result in a bit of confusion. 

If the opening doesn’t disorient or put you off, the book rewards the reader with visions of a bleak and uncompromising world – a world consisting of a single continent called ‘The Stillness’, a place regularly racked with cataclysmic events.  The normal seasons are ‘interrupted’ by a ‘fifth season’ – the period after earthquakes flatten everything, volcanoes belch death, tsunamis hit the coasts, the air is poisoned and the food shortages so great that survivors eventually descend to dining on the people from neighboring ‘comms’.  After each catastrophe there is a great dying off and a few survivors begin life anew – passing down lore as to how to survive the next disaster.

The Stillness is filled with groups of people in competition for survival.  First are the ‘stills’, ordinary mortals living in places like the imperial city of Yumenes (we don’t hear much about them) or those living in the outlands in ‘comms’ – smaller enclaves run in a rather brutal feudal style.  The stills fear a small group called orogenes – people with a mutation that gives them the power to start or quell earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – not to mention being able to turn everyone around them into ice packs.  The orogenes, in turn, are virtually enslaved by a group called Guardians, whose depredations against the orogenes provide the story’s conflict and rationale for the world’s destruction.   There are, in addition, the mysterious stone people that live within the earth’s rock and obelisks left from an ancient civ that may do more than just stand by – silently watching.  Sprinkle in a few pirates and the cast is ready to go.

What’s the role of the stone people, how are they connected to the obelisks and how is it that the Guardians weren’t turned into icicles by the orogenes long ago?  Ms. Jemisin has a gift for storytelling but she’s not an author that likes to tie up every loose end or explain the puzzling anomalies that occasionally pop up.  The plot has some surprising twists with several strongly etched characters stretching their skills against impossible odds.

The flaws are minor and once you’re into the story, it sweeps you on to the end.  Then you go back and read the beginning again – the part where the world ends – oh, that’s what it was about…  This is a good pick for the fantasy buffs that like a little complexity in their alien worlds.

TL:DR – This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, in a great bang – not a whimper.  Move over T.S. Eliot – N.K. Jemisin is betting on the big bang theory.

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