The setting is a world with a giant supercontinent that is under constant state of geological distress, occasionally leading to catastrophic Fifth Seasons that humanity barely survives. To help quell the earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis are the orogenes, magic users with seismic powers that are essential to keeping the world alive. For their trouble, they are generally feared and despised by the rest of the population (I kept thinking of X-Men). The plot considers three different orogenes, each at a different point in their life. One is Essun, an older orogene in hiding and also the aforementioned grieving mother who is now determined to seek out her husband (who has also presumably kidnapped their daughter). Then there is Syenite, a cranky but talented orogene sent on a mission with another, very powerful orogene named Alabaster. Finally, there's the child Damaya, who we follow as she's taken from her home to be trained at the Fulcrum and serve at the will of the Empire. Meanwhile,
To some people, this dark (to put it mildly) approach is like catnip. At least, judging from the reviews, that's the case. I found myself floundering a bit at the beginning, at first in a good way. I like the dense worldbulding and the magic system (such as it is) is well thought out and used in clever ways. The characters are well drawn and yet, I didn't particularly like anyone. This can be fine, but they're not particularly interesting either, except insofar as they are instruments of the worldbuilding. The twisted and misanthropic nature of the relationships and institutions don't help. There are no real friendships here, only betrayals. There isn't any love, only lies. Every relationship is a twisted power struggle resulting in exploitation at best and usually outright abuse. Every institution is oppressive and exploitative. The result is misery porn.
Look, I don't need a book to have all the answers or be uniformly upbeat, but this book takes such an extreme and dismal view that it resulted primarily in a sorta detached experience for me. The end of the book even has a revelation or two that are genuinely interesting, but it's all undercut by this relentless horror that only served to desensitize me. It could almost approach self-parody, but it's far to horrifying to ever reach comedic levels. Towards the end of the book, there was a big twist that I find interesting on an intellectual level, but which didn't have nearly the impact it should have because I just didn't care that much about the characters. As a result, the twist felt more like a cheat than a revelation. Progress is made on all of the storylines, but little is resolved in the end, perhaps because this is the start of a series. The final line of the novel holds an interesting promise, but I can't say as though I'm at all interested in revisiting this world or its characters.
In her review at the New York Times, fellow Hugo nominee Naomi Novik praises Jemisin's novel, noting that:
Fantasy novels often provide a degree of escapism: a good thing, for any reader who has something worth escaping. Too often, though, that escape comes through a fictional world that erases rather than solves the more complex problems of our own, reducing difficulty to the level of personal struggle and heroism, turning all obstacles to monsters we can see and touch and kill with a sword. But N.K. Jemisin's intricate and extraordinary world-building starts with oppression...That's an interesting perspective, but from what I can see, Jemisin's pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It's one thing to confront complex problems, but it's another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That's not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I'm just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me. As usual, judging a book from a series presents certain difficulties with how to rank this on the Hugo ballot. Right now, Novik's Uprooted and Stephenson's Seveneves are at the top somewhere, which puts this book about on par with Leckie's Ancillary Mercy (another book that bounced off me).
...Yet there is no message of hopelessness here. In Jemisin's work, nature is not unchangeable or inevitable. "The Fifth Season" invites us to imagine a dismantling of the earth in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, and suggests the possibility of a richer and more fundamental escape. The end of the world becomes a triumph when the world is monstrous, even if what lies beyond is difficult to conceive for those who are trapped inside it.