The Fifth Season – Book Review

The below post was originally written in November 2016 for my Tumblr and has been copied and back-dated here to match that.

Spoiler warning: I will talk about really big and important spoilers in this book.

This book was so interesting. I read it because it won a Hugo award and some of the writers I follow on Twitter said it was really good when that happened. Plus, it was on sale a few weeks ago. Anyway, it starts by inviting the reader to begin with the end of the world, the world being a place called the Stillness. One of the book’s characters causes something terrible to happen, intentionally destroying a city in the process. That’s only the beginning consequence though, compared to happen to the rest of the Stillness and not meaning much to you, right away, in light of a tragic event happening in your life at this time too.

Yes, that’s right: you are a character in the book. You have whole chapters dedicated to what you’re going through, telling you what you’re doing and how you feel, where you’re going and your purpose in that trek: the search for your daughter who might still be alive with the husband who killed your three-year-old son. Your chapters are between those about Damaya and Syenite. You know these two though the reader doesn’t know you know them at first. You know them because they were you at earlier points in your life, and those things they went through culminate into what you’re experiencing at this stage of your life.

Now we’re going to switch, reader, so that so you are not the second-person character in the book, Essun, but back to being my reader. Essun is an orogene, and it took a long while for me to check and realize the book had a glossary to state more explicitly what that means. Orogenes use orogeny. Orogeny is the “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of orogeny to address seismic events.” Orogenes are dangerous and oppressed. They are used and denied human status with much effort into controlling them. Stills, people without orogeny, outnumber and fear them, sometimes killing them in their prejudice or calling on others to rein them in and take them somewhere else.

Instead of the more common “Mother Earth” reference of our own world, this one has “Father Earth,” and “evil earth” is a phrase used to exclaim or express frustration. The people still swear with a word like “fuck,” but they do so along with “rust.” In the chapter that Damaya meets her Guardian, Schaffa, he tells her, “You’re a gift of the Earth – but Father Earth hates us, never forget, and his gifts are neither safe nor free.” This earth in the Stillness is a dangerous place where people fight to survive, based on their teachings from stonelore, telling them how to manage until the next Fifth Season. On and on it goes, manipulating the orogenes all the while.

Like many other media items I review for this blog, The Fifth Season contains some ableism regarding mental health, including a casual use of “crazy,” as Essun thinks and decides things, using the word as a descriptor. On a more serious level, Essun considers that a man, her husband, Jija, that killed his own child, might not fit the label of “sane” and that in her trauma of not thinking for two days, she might not either. Trauma can affect a person’s mental health, such as PTSD, so her acknowledging it has some merit, but it still might fall into the trap that “crazy” equals “bad.” I’m conflicted and uncertain because I know some people on Twitter I follow and respect use “crazy” for themselves in a way to reclaim it. The part relating to Jija is more overt in being a problem.

In March earlier this year, a 4-year-old girl named Leiliana Wright died in Grand Prairie, Texas. She was killed due to abuse from her mother and mother’s boyfriend. She is not the only abused child to die in Texas, and right now, the state I live in is in a crisis where CPS is underfunded. Children are hurt or dying. I bring this information up because I want to point out the harsh and upsetting truth that child abuse is real and common enough for the number in Texas to reach into the thousands. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Essun’s urge to question Jija’s sanity stems from the wrong belief that we can lay blame on a person’s mental health condition instead of the actions they committed and the sum of all the system in place of her world amounting him dehumanizing his own children the instant he learns they are orogenes. Oppression is deliberate and in a system perpetuating the belief that orogenes are dangerous, deadly non-human beings, killing one, even if that one is a person’s child, is in fact, the system at play, working as intended. It is morally wrong, and the immoral action is not the product of mental illness. Even if it were, people commit immoral actions without having mental illness all the time. In the end, sane or not, Jija still killed his son.

The novel explores systemic oppression at length, from questioning the history that’s been erased to showing how orogenes are treated by others, to how Essun, throughout different periods of her life, has felt, trapped by it. For instance, in the chapter where the reader is introduced to Syenite, she must meet with Alabaster, the highest-ranked, ten-ringed orogene. Each chapter concludes with some written work as part of the world-building, such as a proverb or part of the stonelore rules. The chapter introducing Syenite and Alabaster ends with a blurb about telling “them,” presumably referring to orogenes, they can be great someday, that they must be perfect to be respected on the same level as everyone else, making them bend over backwards for what they can never achieve.

The book does not offer a resolution to Essun’s driving purpose of trying to find her daughter and instead has her stop for a bit in one place and meet up with the very man who set the whole season in motion at the book’s beginning. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that, fully realize it, until I was trying to decide if I would buy the sequel or not. I did buy that, by the way, though I don’t think I’ll be reviewing it. This book was good, so I recommend it, assuming you have an interest in the science fiction and fantasy genre and its sequel.

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