Monday, September 07, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season

I'll be honest--if Nora Jemisin wasn't so damn brilliant, I'm not sure I could have made it through 'The Fifth Season'.

Because this is not a pleasant book. Page One opens with a woman cradling the body of her three-year old son, who has been beaten to death by her husband. By Page Seven, most of the continent has been devastated in an extinction-level cataclysm. And it pretty much goes on from there. I'm not saying it's not good, but of the many awards this will probably win, the first one should be "Book Least Likely To Be Reviewed Using the Phrase 'Madcap Romp'".

That said, I read to the end. Not just read--I devoured the book in great gulps, triggery scenes and all. Because Nora Jemisin is that brilliant. If she was a less talented writer, the brutality in this book would have been done simply for shock value, or exploitation. If she wasn't so amazing at her craft, these scenes wouldn't have made an emotional connection to the reader; they'd have been there simply to say, "This is a bad world with bad people that the hero must stop," a sort of signpost for evil that we could all walk past and know we were heading in the right direction.

But there is nothing that lazy in 'The Fifth Season'. Everything Jemisin writes is designed to remove the distance between you and the narrative. The three interweaving stories of Damaya, Syenite and Essun are meant to be your story as well--the use of the present tense, the use of the second-person voice in much of the story, these things are there to bring you closer so that you feel the pain of it. The injustice. The crushing, grinding despair that comes from being systematically exploited and abused for something outside of your control. Nora Jemisin wants to kick the props out from under you and make you feel something, and she succeeds completely.

That's what this book is really about--it's not about defeating a villain and toppling an evil empire. That happens by Page Seven, and I'm still not sure whether it was the right thing to do 442 pages later. This is a book about understanding how people can be exploited for their gifts and talents as well as their weaknesses. It's about learning that sometimes, people can look at you and see nothing more than a resource to be used. It is a powerful allegory for a powerful subject, and it's hard to feel the same way after you finish reading this book. It is a book that changes you. It takes a lot of talent to do that.

(It's also Book One of a trilogy, so don't expect a self-contained narrative. Just so you don't get frustrated at the end.)

This is a work of heartbreak, but it's all the more worth reading for that. I don't think most writers could have pulled it off. I don't necessarily think a lot of writers would have tried. But I'm glad someone did.

1 comment:

Greg Machlin said...

Thanks for this review, John! Glad it resonated so well. Oy, it sounds difficult though. I don't know how much brutality I can handle, even as purposefully and carefully done as it sounds like The Fifth Season is.