Hello everyone and welcome back to the third edition of Your Mileage May Vary, the blog series where I talk about books I actually finished! This week I’m taking a look at N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, a book I’d long heard extolled, and yet somehow still wasn’t prepared for.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a really picky reader. I don’t know when this frustrating trait developed, as I was voracious as a kid, but it is what it is. Most times I have to force myself to read, specifically carve time away from my other leisure activities to read, or spend the time I am reading sighing and skimming and eventually DNFing perfectly good books.
The Fifth Season has been a long-awaited exception to those rules.
This was an exceptionally, objectively good book. Despite very little forward momentum plot-wise, at no point was I bored. Though there were plenty of Bad Decision Scenes that had me cringing, none were so egregious that I had to take a time out from the book (I confess I did skim these scenes to find the resolution, then went back and read them in their entirety).
Some notes: I write exclusively in present, and experimented with second person POV when I was still doing fanfiction, so neither of these things were especially jarring or foreign to me, especially the tense. I didn’t even notice until it was pointed out. Secondly, the stylized prose I thought was a credit not a detriment, though I did at times wonder if I was reading it correctly (more on that later). All of that to say, this book in a purely stylistic sense was my jam, but I totally understand how and why it might not be others’.
Now, to the meat and potatoes. If you want to understand my taste in any sort of fictional media – books, television, video games, etc. – the thing I would tell you is: I don’t like to be depressed in my spare time. So it was a bit of surprise to me that I made it to the end of this book. Because, at no point during The Fifth Season was I ever comfortable, relaxed, able to simply enjoy. The depictions of child abuse littered throughout the story were nauseating for me to read. And, perhaps, that was part of the point, but I did find myself wondering if people actually like reading these kinds of books. Do some people actually look forward to that level of darkness? Maybe, but I do not. And yet I kept reading anyway because the story was just so damned compelling.
Apart from that, Syenite was just… not likeable to me. Though I felt like she was doing most of the narrative work, her chapters from the start were a bit grating to read because she was just so… stubborn. She was so locked into her way of thinking that even whilst her world view was being changed and challenged daily, she resolutely remained unaltered as a person. Which is why the jump from her change into Essun is the biggest question mark for me (the transition from Damaya to Syenite totally jived, by comparison). I hope in the sequel we see more of Essun, now that we know how she came to be. The origin story was great, and though Syen’s journey the most interesting in this novel, I’m ready to leave her behind and look to the future.
The twists, too, I don’t even know if I should describe as twists. That the three POVs all turned out to be the same person at different points of her life I guessed early on. The moon being absent and having a part to play (the novel’s DUN DUN DUN moment) I also expected. But, then, I feel like I was pointed squarely at those conclusions by Jemisin, so I’m not sure if I was ahead of the curve or right on track. What did actually surprise me, though perhaps it should not have, was that Alabaster was the man who broke the world in the prologue. Perhaps if I hadn’t been ripping through the book at a feverish pace, and actually stopped to consider it, I might have realized that too, but as it stands I’m glad I didn’t. The surprise of it was a nice… surprise. Hm.
I do have one, itty bitty gripe that I don’t think has anything to do with taste. I said to myself when I first started this book that I didn’t think I was smart enough to read it. And that feeling returned a few times throughout the story, particularly in moments when Syenite would realize something, but that conclusion was not explained to the reader. The first most obvious example is in her very first POV chapter. In the scene with her mentor, at no point did I find it clear that Syenite was expected to have a sexual relationship with the ten-ringer who would accompany her on her mission. But, at length, I concluded that the shock of the reveal later in the chapter was actually the point. And so, whenever Syenite would come to abrupt and vague realizations later in the book, I expected these to play out more obviously later, yet they never materialized. This left me feeling really dumb, like since I didn’t make the connection I was not the intended audience.
Beyond that, however, The Fifth Season was damn near perfection. For the first time in a long time I want to reread something new (I reread plenty of old favorites all the time). For the first time in a long time, I bought the sequel.
Final rating for The Fifth Season: 5 out of 5 miles.
Phew. That one was… visceral. I’m glad I read it.
Anyway, I’ll be back on Thursday for your regularly scheduled blog post and then again on Sunday for a slightly late edition of Short But Sweet. Until then, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.
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