Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2016 Hugo Winner - THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin

Last time, I praised Uprooted for the way it doled out its world-building. N. K. Jemisin ups the ante on this front significantly in this year's Hugo winner. The Fifth Season, the first in a trilogy, introduces a rich world full of exciting and original plot hooks that also serve as incredibly relevant allegories to our own world.

The Fifth Season takes place on a large, very geologically active continent called The Stillness. The frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis lead to frequent "fifth seasons," which are basically periods of post-apocalyptic struggle. For millennia, one empire, the Sanzed centered in the city of Yumenes, has managed to ride out the fifth seasons with superior infrastructure and the control of people with special powers called orogenes. Orogenes can control kinetic energy on vast scales, calming the tectonic activity, among other things. Because they are so powerful, the people of the Stillness persecute orogenes violently, and the Sanzed Empire keeps them as slaves, training and indoctrinating them at a special school called the Fulcrum. And that's just the start of the world-building.

Jemisin explains all of this while alternately following an orogene recruit named Damaya, a powerful trained orogene named Syenite (they receive rings as they advance, and Syenite has five of the ten possible), and an orogene hiding as a commoner named Essun, who witnesses the beginning of a new, devastating fifth season. And there are both more details about the world (I haven't even gotten into the caste organization of the empire's communities, or comms) and a few surprises, like the inhuman race called the stone-eaters and the strange obelisks that float around as relics of a "deadciv" - a more advanced civilization destroyed by fifth seasons of the distant past. It's very dense, but I never felt lost. In fact, the book has two fairly lengthy appendices, but I got by fine without them, reading them only at the end to fill out my understanding of the world a little better. Jemisin skillfully fills the reader in, almost always showing rather than telling.

Even more impressive: despite the complexity of this world, this is very much a character-centered story. We get to know and like the central characters very much, and the plight of the orogenes is an interesting metaphor for discrimination and exploitation of ethnic groups in our own world. Jemisin convincingly shows the hatred that the orogenes face, and the slur that people use against them "rogga" takes on an appropriate power here, and their exploitation also shows through clearly (in some rather horrific instances, some of which recall the history of American slavery).

I also think Jemisin's prose has developed really well since the last novel of hers that I read - it's rich and highly readable. This was an excellent novel; the best fantasy novel I've read in a while. I ended up reading four of the five nominees this year (missing only a purely sad puppy nom - review for Seveneves and Ancillary Mercy forthcoming), so I feel pretty confident in saying that the right book won this year. I expect this to become something of a classic, unless Jemisin struggles to finish out the trilogy on the same level at which she started it.

Grade: A

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