Notes on Diversity:
The real power of diverse literature is that it speaks truth. Essun is a Black woman–a dreadlocked middle-aged woman protagonist. She is a rarity, and she is deeply, fully realized. The world of The Fifth Season is, like our own world, full to the brim with people of color. They outnumber white people. Race in the Stillness still matters, but it is conceptualized and socially constructed along different factors. The way Jemisin breaks this down in the text is remarkable and masterful.
There is also queer representation. Alabaster is clearly gay; Innon is a rare comfortable and loving bisexual man. I had…issues with this, not because of their portrayal, but because of their positioning within the plot. It’s hard to talk about this without giving anything away, spoiler-wise, so I’m sticking things in a footnote. But those who wish to avoid common queer tropes may be chafed.1
And then there are the trans folks.
Y’all, there is an important secondary character in this book who is a trans woman. She’s just there, and she’s trans. Just hanging out, living her life as a trans woman. And! And! There’s a passing mention of a trans boy, too. It’s just a blip, but it was there. The Stillness had trans people in it. Also, like sentient rock people or whatever, but do you have any idea how rare it is to read a book that just has nonchalant trans people in it being trans? A hell of a lot rarer than books about sentient rock people, that’s for damn sure. I nearly fucking cried. I am not kidding.
I loved this book. It was immensely hard for me to read, and I still loved it.2
I read The Fifth Season hungrily, because it is a damn good book, cleverly structured and wonderfully written, always leaving you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.
The Stillness is a land that is never still. Stills are people who hate orogenes, people who can bring order to the land. The world has a habit of ending. There are entire histories of apocalypses. This is the story of the most recent one, the most terrible one yet.
And to understand how it happened, you have to understand how many injustices–small and large, premeditated and coincidental–came together to shape two very particular people in very particular ways.
It’s Jemisin’s choice to root this apocalypse in a handful of lives, and in a handful of choices, that makes the book work. She shows how those choices fracture a life, how the course of lives can and must sometimes change on a whim. How sometimes those forces are within our control, but how often they are not, and how terrifying it is that they are not. The actions that set the story in motion come as a cumulative response to this: a response to a lifetime of being corralled and cajoled and confined.
There is an immense amount of depth in this book. I am white, and I have rarely been as aware of my whiteness as I was reading this book. There is a reason that Essun and Alabaster are Black. Jemisin is articulating something here (I am guessing) about what it is to be Black–the entire sequence while they are in Allia, while they have to navigate avenues of politeness that they are expected to perform but can’t expect to receive in kind, that is what it is to be Black in America, at least in part. She has captured here that kind of very particular containment that I am aware of but I will never experience, and she has written it into the minds of people who can literally tear the world apart with a fury-filled thought.
But they are not just their fury. Of course they aren’t; they are people, and they want and they desire, and they get tired and they break and they have hidden strengths. Jemisin knows these characters inside and out. Alabaster and Essun, especially, are deeply known and well-written. The book is both a quest and a tragedy, but the tragedy is at its heart the fact that people have limits, that they run out of will, that they can’t keep going. Or that some can, and others can’t by some weird fluke of fate.
The Fifth Season brutalized me and left me breathless. When it ended, I immediately preordered its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. I cannot wait to see what happens next.
1HERE BE SPOILERS TURN BACK WHILE YE STILL CAN! Again, both Alabaster and Innon were beautifully written characters. But. They were also the two canonically queer characters. And Innon dies, brutally, which I can’t help but read as a Bury Your Gays thing. Then, Alabaster ends up being a Tragic Gay Villain, basically. Yes, it makes sense why he does the things he does. Yes, it makes narrative sense why Innon as to die. But…as a queer person it still felt like a sucker punch that *my* characters were being used this way. They were the disposable ones, the weak ones that turned bad, etc etc, like always, again. For all the wonder and glory of the book, even with the wonder and the glory that is Tonkee herself alone, this left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m rating this 5 stars, but these issues make it a 4.5 star book for me. It gives me pause.
2IT STARTS WITH A DEAD CHILD. Oh, my heart.