Do you remember the ‘choose your own adventure’ books? Books where you’d read a section – sometimes a paragraph and sometimes a few pages – and then make a choice: turn left or right, go into the tunnel or climb the hill, listen at the door or walk right in. Most of these books had a correct path, a few good endings and lots of places to die prematurely.
And they were all written in second person. You turned left, went into the tunnel or listened at the door. These days you don’t see a lot of second person novels (you do however see it in Interactive Fiction, which is seeing a cool resurgence and you should check it out). But I loved those books for the same reason I love story heavy games now. I could control a bit of the narrative and I was a part of the story in a special way. Both are alluring feelings but it’s the special engagement in the story that’s leveraged in The Fifth Season.
The first installment of the newest trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Dreamblood Duology) uses second person for one of her three perspectives to devastating effect. After the prolog, you – the reader – become Essun. And you are looking at your son. Actually you are looking at your son’s body. He’s young. Was young. Your husband has beaten him to death because he was different. Your son was different because you are different.
N. K. Jemisin’s prose is beautiful, poetic and heart-wrenching. The first chapter from Essun’s perspective is both gorgeous and crushing. The Fifth Season tears your heart out early and never gives it back.
Essun is different because she is an orogene, someone with the power to feel the energy of the earth and its fault lines, someone who can stop or cause earthquakes. Such people are considered dangerous in the world, so much so that they are frequently attacked and murdered if discovered hiding in the ordinary world. Essun passed this trait on to her son and to her daughter.
Her quest is to find her husband and her daughter. She hopes to avenge her son and rescue her other child. But the world just experienced a massive seismic event, one that has filled the sky with ash. Such events happen relatively often in this world, creating the Fifth Season for which this book is named. But it means that even if Essun finds her daughter, the odds are bad.
There are two more perspectives in the book. The second is Damaya. She’s also an orogene, but before she can be beaten to death by a fearful village, she is taken by a Guardian to a special school called the Fulcrum to learn to control her powers. Here she enters a life of slavery, where orogene are kept under control and do as they are told.
Our third orogene is named Syenite. She is a young woman released from the Fulcrum for the first time on a mission with Alabaster. Alabaster is one of the most powerful orogene in the world. The Fulcrum has decreed that Syenite and Alabaster must have a child. Alabaster is gay.
The depiction of oppression and the consequences of living in a world that perceives particular humans as monsters is brutal in this book. And they should be. We have a literary tradition of privileged heroes being exempt from the less palatable opinions of their time period – and thus absolved of the sins of the privileged class in the eyes of the unprivileged. That trope is not healthy, nor is it honest. Part of what reading The Fifth Season drove home for me was how unhealthy and dishonest and present that trope is. And I try to pay attention to who’s perspective is privileged, why, and where their privilege places them in a given fictional world.
The Fifth Season is about a lot. About love and family and the strange friends we gather in interesting times. It’s about the end of the world in microcosm and macrocosm. It’s about losing your temper at the wrong moment and being afraid, hidden histories and revelations about abuse.
I can’t actually recommend The Fifth Season unreservedly, because it’s not a book for all moments. It’s not a book for you if you’re depressed. It starts off with a murdered child and moves on to abused children and adults, to subjugations and humiliations and an apocalypse. However, it’s a book you should read – not because you’ll enjoy it. I don’t know that I enjoyed it. But I did love it.