Book review: "The Fifth Season"

by N.K. Jemisin

If there’s anything 2020 reconfirmed for me, it’s my own porousness: the way that the sadnesses of strangers seep into my skin, and stay.

So when I cracked open “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin and encountered first, a murdered three year old, I set it back down. The last thing my sorrowsoaked soul needed was another grieving mother. But I picked it back up, and this book was the great escape I had been looking for.

Not to say that The Fifth Season is, precisely, an escape. The prose is sweeping and precise, the world building intricate and destabilizing. Three narrators—whose identities eventually serve up a structural echo and a satisfying twist—gradually orient us to the precarious contours of this speculative world, whose inhabitants live under the twin shadows of oppressive social castes and regular existential threats. Power shored up through abuse and violence flails against the threat of the next apocalypse. The volatile planet shudders, cracks, burns.

And yet it is not the environmental pyrotechnics, brought to life in details terrifying and terrifyingly mundane, but the calculus of sacrifice and suffering that kept me up long past my bedtime. To read “The Fifth Season” as an allegory of this moment is reductive, an insult to the scope and texture of the questions it raises. And yet the convulsing landscapes and crumbling civilizations, experienced within the echo chamber of IRL black swan events, are startlingly familiar.