Subversion is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. The subversion of themes, the subversion of genre, and the subversion of even narrative. Everything Jemisin chooses to do with what one would consider a traditional fantasy, she turns it on its’ head. It won the Hugo for best novel in 2016, for good reason.
The Stillness is fraught by global catastrophes that occur every couple hundred years, sometimes more sometimes less. The very land is more of an antagonist than any human. Jemisin takes the classic hero, who is an orogene, one of those who can use the power of Father Earth and makes her powerless in the abduction of her daughter. A fantasy novel that does not resemble a fantasy novel. In some ways, it brings to mind science fiction, rather than fantasy. Parts of the book are even told in, the seldom used, second person which may be off-putting to some, but do not let that discourage you from enjoying one of the biggest new voices in the genre.
We follow a woman whose daughter was taken by her husband, just before the world of the Stillness is ripped apart by another catastrophe. It is up to her to pursue her daughter and try and make sense of her world when ash falls from the sky. The world is masterfully built, but it is a world that is cruel beyond belief. Individuals who are able to move stone and dirt with a thought are enslaved by the ruling empire with their seemingly “benevolent” Guardians. People are regulated to their use-caste, confined to it for the rest of their lives. Often obligation and tradition circumvent even what is most pragmatic for their communities.
The Fifth Season provides a world so alien to our own, but very familiar. There is a struggle between society and the individual that often keeps one locked into certain roles and expectations, rather than allowing such a choice. The solution Jemisin offers is to make that choice no matter what.