I wrapped up my second 2016 Hugo Awards finalist novel, N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season (paid link), yesterday, and it was awesome.
The Fifth Season is post-apocalyptic fantasy, which is unusual enough to pique my interest, but it’s doubly unusual: Its setting, The Stillness, experiences recurring apocalypses — Seasons — that can be decades or centuries apart. Which means its inhabitants are fucked about eight different ways.
(This post is spoiler-free.)
On the heels of Seveneves
After Seveneves (paid link), which blew my mind (here’s that post, and all of my 2016 Hugo Awards posts), I figured a shift to fantasy would be a good idea. I’d never heard of N.K. Jemisin, and I was excited to check out her work.
The fact that The Fifth Season wasn’t on the Rabid Puppies slate — arriving on the list of finalists solely based on merit, rather than vote-fuckery — and that the Rabid-in-Chief called Jemisin, an African-American woman, a “half-savage,” only made me more interested, because fuck the Rabid agenda.
But I also worried about following up Seveneves with anything; it wasn’t going to be an easy act to follow. And for the first 25% of The Fifth Season, I wasn’t feeling it.
There was too much “worldbuilding through terminology” (introducing made-up words and not fully explaining them, at least initially), and I wasn’t sold on the opening character or the use of second-person narrative . . . but there was something about it that kept me reading.
Cue the fireworks at 26%
At 26%, though, it took off like a rocket. I devoured the balance of the book in a mad rush, reading at times when — and in places where — I don’t normally read.
It plays with form. The second-person narrative, which is only for one viewpoint character, grew on me. (It plays with form in other ways, too, but I won’t veer into spoilers.)
The worldbuilding gathers steam, too, and the more I learned about The Stillness, the more I liked it. Jemisin fully explores just how weird a world with a reset button for human progress and civilization would be, and it’s marvelous. If you’d told me to design a world where apocalypses happen all the time, it wouldn’t look anything like The Stillness — and I love that.
It’s not all apocalypses, all the time, either. There are living statues (and, until I read TFS, I’d never stopped to consider how fucking creepy those would actually be), giant floating obelisks, seismic “superpowers” — all sorts of cool stuff. It builds a big, broad foundation for the rest of the trilogy, while also delivering a gripping story in its own right.
With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t label it squarely as fantasy — or sci-fi. It’s got both, though not in equal measure; the balance goes to fantasy, for me. It’s a unique mix.
A big middle finger to bigots everywhere
It’s also unique in its treatment of LGBT folks, sexuality, and skin color.
One of the secondary main characters is a trans woman, and that’s no big deal in The Stillness — which is awesome in a social justice sense, but also in a worldbuilding sense. There’s also a prominent three-party relationship, the dynamics of which are interesting, and two equally prominent bisexual characters.
The Stillness is a muddle of ethnicities and skin colors, and the three main characters all have brown skin. They’re not defined by it, and thinking back I can’t recall any racism in the setting. (There’s plenty of bigotry, though: The main characters are all hated and feared, just not for the color of their skin.)
We need more fiction like this. It’s not preachy, and it doesn’t put message ahead of quality. It’s a great read that also happens to be a great example of why racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and hatred are fucked, as ideologies go.
It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed The Fifth Season (paid link) that, rather than racing on to my next Hugo-finalist novel (so much to read! so little time!), I went to see if the second book of this trilogy was available. It’s called The Obelisk Gate (paid link), and it doesn’t come out until August 2016. I know what I’ll be doing in August!
 Or vote-fuckery AND merit (e.g., Seveneves).
 One of my favorite unexpected benefits of reading on my Kindle (paid link) is how easy it makes it to think about books, and their rhythms, in terms of percentages. It’s a handy tool.