Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

Reading a book is an act of trust. I've frequently been heard to say, 'Life's too short to read bad books,' and it's something I wholeheartedly believe. If I start reading a book and find that it's not to my taste, I'm doing nobody any favours by continuing to read it. Carrying on with a book is, to me, saying that I trust that the book will be worth my time. If I'm not enjoying it, the author has not inspired that trust in me, and I'll give up. I've encountered many people who finish every book they start, on principle. I'm the opposite.

Finding an author I can reliably trust to deliver work I'll enjoy and want to read to the end is amazing - like meeting someone and knowing they're destined to become an old friend. As a child, Diana Wynne Jones was one of these authors; I would take any of her books out of the library without even glancing at the blurb, because I knew I would love it, whatever she wrote. The same was true of Joan Aiken. I read everything of hers that I could get my hands on and loved it all - this was begun with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which I was given for my sixth birthday by my former childminder.

A little over four years ago, I discovered a new author of the trustworthy kind: N K Jemisin. I'll buy anything she writes. I've loved all of her novels so far, and all of her short stories that I've read. I've given copies of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as gifts to friends and family at least half a dozen times. During my first Masters degree, I wrote a paper on her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (it was about the fluidity of Nahadoth's gender and Heidegger's 'gift' and Da-sein), which means my paperback copy of the book is frilled with placemarkers and post-it notes with all my scribblings on them. When I wrote this essay, I emailed her letting her know that I had enjoyed her work and she emailed back so graciously that it really just cemented my enjoyment of her work. Not only is she a hell of a writer, she's either a really great person, or exceptionally good at pretending to be (I suspect the former).

I don't recall how long ago I preordered The Fifth Season - months, at least. I read about it on her blog when she was writing about curse words and the way they betray the values of a society, when it was still being called the Untitled Magic Seismology Project (UMSP) and I've been waiting for it with growing excitement since then. That was in 2012. So, three years? Ish?

Anyway, The Fifth Season was released this week, and it is amazing. I trust Jemisin to write stuff that I'll want to read, and will buy pretty much anything with her name on it. But this is her best novel yet. Even before I had finished it, I was enthusing to friends and theorizing and realising links and connections between characters and situations and it's just a triumph. It's amazing. I love it.

The Fifth Season is about three women - one child, leaving her family to be taken and trained to use her orogenic powers (magic based on and involving the earth and seismic effects); one young woman in control of her powers who has been sent away with a man she can barely stand, to do a job she doesn't want to do, and is expected to return pregnant if possible; and a woman fully grown into herself and her powers, facing the loss and death of her children. I was more than halfway through the book before I realised that it's the maiden, the mother and the crone, but of course all of these characters are more than that.

This book is about oppression and love and protection and identity and power and fear. It's about parenthood and childhood, family and strangeness. There are characters who are queer and poly and trans; there are characters who are hated and feared because of what they are and punished for what they cannot help but be; there are characters with black skin, brown skin, white skin, with straight and curly and kinky hair, with and without epicanthal folds. The world that she has built looks, in many ways, different from our own, but the diversity of experiences and people is there. And it's there because Jemisin has made it matter that it is there. She does this on purpose (I assume that everything in her books is there on purpose, because Jemisin is a very purposeful and thoughtful writer.) and it makes all the difference. It matters that there exist books where the main characters are bisexual and polyamorous, where there are prominent trans characters and gender fluid characters, where characters have disabilities of various types. Jemisin writes about oppression in various forms in all of her books, and she writes about it from the point of view of a person who notices things and thinks about them. There is no 'writing about the default' in her work. It is a thousand miles away from medieval-Europe-white-people-sword-and-sorcery, and so much the better for it.

It's impossible to express how much I loved this book. I'm composing a list of people who deserve or need to get this book for birthdays or solstice and currently the list stands at 'everyone.' I'm looking forward to buying it in dead tree version so I can reread it and still have a new experience with it. If and when the audiobook becomes available in the UK, I'll buy it and listen to it. I think it will become my favourite book by my favourite living author. It's amazing. I loved it. I loved it.

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