N.K. Jemisin, “The Fifth Season” (2015) – Jemisin might be the biggest new force in sci-fi/fantasy writing today. She’s the winner of back-to-back Hugos for best novel in 2016 (for “The Fifth Season”) and 2017 and an active blog/social media figure. She was near the center of “Puppygate,” a social media brouhaha where multiple loose coalitions of reactionaries attempted to hijack the Hugo awards process and generally troll sci-fi/fantasy fans and writers they saw as liberal or politically correct. A successful black woman writer vocal about social justice issues both within and without the SFF community, Jemisin was a special target for the worst of the “puppies,” and received a lot of vile, high-profile abuse. Backlash against the backlash helped make her a symbolic figure for liberal fans (and probably helped her win those two Hugos, the award that served as the site of much of the controversy, which has presumably inflamed the reactionaries all the more- the circle of liiiiife).
Honestly, beyond simple racism, misogyny, and various other misplaced resentments, I don’t see what problem these people could have with Jemisin’s work that they wouldn’t have with accepted favorites like George RR Martin. “The Fifth Season” is a decent example of what seems popular in big ticket speculative fiction these days: big doorstop tomes, thickly laid-on worldbuilding, character work that’s a little bit Joseph Campbell, a lotta bit RPGs, a smidgen of zeitgeisty filigree work, and a lot of portents, both for the world-shattering apocalypses the stories either promise or are premised upon and the inevitable, equally long or longer, sequels. This is pitched as softly and straightly at contemporary readers as you can get without providing cliffnotes. So don’t let any of these Puppygate trolls tell you it’s about getting the kind of stories they want. They want exactly this kind of story, but they don’t want it from a black woman who says stuff the don’t like, especially if she gets the sort of award that helps make you the face of the genre.
Jemisin comes up with some interesting stuff (more than Martin does, in my opinion). The world of “The Fifth Season” is a world of repeated cyclical geological apocalypses. Societies are organized around their inevitable collapses. There’s also a downtrodden subsector of the population which can do magic, drawing from the energy of the overactive tectonic plates to go super saiyan (is that the term? I’ve never watched the show) and do all kinds of stuff. These magicians are hated and feared, and usually killed if a special order doesn’t find them first, to train them to use their powers. There’s a lot of “Steven Universe” in this- magical outcasts named after rocks. But sadly, it has little of the show’s whimsy (or its aesthetic- harder to pull off with the written word in any event). This is serious biz, ended worlds and lynched children and ancient secrets. It’s heavy.
Jemisin also does some interesting stuff with narrative but it doesn’t land quite as well. There are several diverging and reconverging viewpoints, which is cool, but about a third of it is in second-person. That is an experiment that doesn’t work- I found those portions took me more out of the story than the third-person parts did. And in general, “The Fifth Season” suffers from pacing issues, as it tries to shoehorn a plot into all of its worldbuilding… and, of course, set up for the inevitable sequel. It’s often unclear who is where, doing what, why, even with the handy maps and glossaries. I sympathize with wanting to lay out all of the aspects of this cool world you made (and I wonder if Jemisin ran this as an RPG at some point- I could see this as being a fun setting for one). But it’s a delicate balance between a propulsive story and a big, detailed world, and Jemisin doesn’t nail it in this one. ***