The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Can we please talk about The Fifth Season for a minute? Because it is an incredibly good read! It was the selection for a small book club that some friends run (which is often more like wine and cheese and bread and friends and, “Oh, we read a book that we should talk about!” but then there’s cheese in our mouths and it’s sometimes hard to talk). I was prepared to enjoy the book, but it absolutely wowed me.

First of all, I have to thank audiobooks for making reading in my life more of a possibility. I have a 40 minute commute to work each way – plus I drive to Philadelphia and back about once a month and that’s about 3-3.5 hours in a go – so I don’t get a lot of down time for reading. Enter Amazon’s Whispersync and my savior. This is a feature where you can buy a kindle book and tack on the audiobook narration for a fee and – here’s the magic – you can switch seamlessly between reading and listening. It’s all done in the Kindle app itself (no need to log in to the audible app) and the narration starts at the top of whatever page you left of reading on.

Would I have been able to read The Fifth Season, a sizable fantasy epic, in just over a month without Whispersync? I highly doubt it. Additionally, the narration was really well done and didn’t detract from the experience or annoy me at all. I’ve listened to some stinkers, narration-wise, and they can ruin an otherwise good book experience.

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In this book, Jemisin builds a sprawling fantasy setting in which cataclysmic disasters, called Seasons, grip the land and wipe out huge swaths of the population on a regular basis. And as we open the story with Essun, a woman whose son has just been brutally murdered, the worst season in recent history is just getting underway. While there is first a brief visit with an unnamed man who begins the story by breaking the world (and this is done in the most delightful sardonic third person narration), we really do begin in Essun’s small home. And here’s a fun trick: Essun’s POV chapters are all written in present tense second person, creating a sort of forced intimacy, which I think pays off.  The other two characters who we follow (the child, Damaya and the young woman, Syenite) tell stories in past third person and weave together the tales of these three women who wield the power to break and mend the earth.

The Fifth Season also addresses issues of race, class, sex, gender, caste, and creates two powerful forces of oppression: the faceless, hateful, eternal abstraction of Father Earth and the Fulcrum, which trains and controls the orogenes, who have been legally labeled non-human because of their earth-warping powers. While many fantasy books feature enemies that are killable monsters or men mad with power, Jemisin presents more complex and nuanced evil in the forms of nature and a tyrannical system.

It was a seriously wonderful read, built on a world created with incredible depth. The writing is well-crafted and the characters let you lean in close and become hypnotized by this alien and yet all-too-familiar world.

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