Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season is a book in a series by N K Jemisin.  It is superb and wonderful and everyone should read it for a dizzying array of reasons.  When I review books I try to provide both positive and negative feedback and avoid portraying things as PERFECTLY GOOD or TOTALLY EVIL, but The Fifth Season is just wonderful cover to cover.  There is nothing bad to say.

The story is a fantasy / sci fi crossover.  It is set in a far future Earth, or perhaps an alternate Earth.  It has incredibly futuristic technology as well as magic, although of course when you talk about a story set 20,000 years in Earth's future, the magic could well just be technology that is beyond our modern day comprehension.  The title of the book refers to the fact that in the Earth of the book there is drastically greater volcanic and tectonic activity than today and times of cataclysm are common.  When tsunamis strike and the air is clouded with volcanic ash, when poison rains from the sky and winter lasts for years at a time, this is the Fifth Season.

The world is beautiful and deep and marvellous.  The magic users of the world have incredible power but are counterbalanced by other forces.  Jemisin doesn't just spend her time going over how the magic works technically though because she has embedded it deeply in the political and cultural norms of the world.  The constant catastrophes and the way that magic users can prevent or alter them is a critical part of the worldbuilding.  This isn't Feudal England with Fireballs - it is a completely new world that Jemisin reveals to us, and it is one that makes sense.

I love it when fantasy is done like this.  It is boring when the world is just assumed to be Earth but with random magic stamped in willy nilly.  Far better is someone who twists the entire world to react to the presence of magic and shows us amazing new things that humanity could become in that place.

Jemisin does a great job of having a diverse cast of characters too.  She describes people so that you can see their racial features and understand what the characters look like without simply assuming that everyone is a normal white person like so many fantasy books do.  She also includes queer and trans characters seamlessly and beautifully.  It isn't a story about what it is like to be queer, or even what it is like to be queer in a magical society.  It is simply a story where some people are queer or trans and they are just part of the narrative.  Needless to say women also get to play an equal part in the world, another thing few fantasy or science fiction stories manage.  We need more of this!

Similarly there are love stories that aren't monogamous ones.  This certainly hits home for me because monogamy utterly dominates books and stories of all sorts, but The Fifth Season has characters who end up in non monogamous relationships that are quirky, individual, happy, and loving.  The book isn't about polyamory and indeed the word never appears but the best and most functional relationship that the main characters end up in consists of three people.  Even better, I think, that it isn't a simple triangle of perfect loves because all three of the people have different relationships with one another.  It reflects real life in that it is tricky and messy sometimes, but it works for them.

The technology and magic in the world is interesting and well written.  The history of the world is deep and fascinating to learn about as the book progresses.  The characters are flawed, real, difficult, and compelling.  The diversity of the cast and the way that Jemisin weaves in stories that are so often forgotten or ignored is marvellous.

This is the best fantasy book I have read in a long time.  Maybe ever.  This is also the best science fiction book I have read in a long time.  Maybe ever.  If you like either of those genres, this is what the biggest and best new thing looks like.  The third book of the series comes out this summer and I will be eagerly awaiting it.

You should too.

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