There’s an incredible thing that happens when you come across something new, inventive, something that breaks the mold. It has the power to open up what once seemed closed. It can give hope, provide clarity, and be a catalyst for creativity. N. K. Jemisin has written a book that takes what we think of as an arm of speculative fiction, the dystopian/apocalyptic world and turned it on its head–all while being a woman. A black woman. Thank God.
Speculative fiction has long been a white man’s world. And we’ve loved it. That’s fine. Great. But it’s time to move over. Jemisin has proven that it’s possible to take an idea, build a world around that idea, and at the same time shake up the conversation on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, and climate change. In The Fifth Season, Jemisin’s lead character is female and the book opens with the murder of her son. It’s heavy, as grief is want to be. She writes some chapters and the prologue (please don’t ever skip prologues) in the second person (You). Writing books say don’t do this. No one will read it, will like it. Your book won’t sell. But don’t be surprised at how well it works. The second person pulls you in, makes you part of the story, which is relevant in many ways because we are all a part of this possible future. We read as if it is our son who lays murdered on our floor. It’s stunning and so is the mother, Essun’s, strength, her will, and her mental capacity to reach through her grief and grab on to her reason for living. She is not frail and does not depend on a man to bring her back to life. She depends on herself.
Jemisin built a future-world inhabited by people with special abilities to protect and destroy the Earth. There are also those that don’t have these abilities, but want to control the ones that do. Throughout the book, Jemisin puts us in a position to question who is right? Who is the enemy? We go down one rabbit hole and it brings us to another that goes back the other way. She’s crafted a maze of a story, which keeps us guessing and reading. The racial identities are a mix of what we see today. Sexuality is more fluid. Motherhood can look differently from what we see as a societal norm. How are we using our positions, high or low, to oppress others, to oppress ourselves?
I finished the book a few weeks ago and I’m still reeling from the experience. If you’re interested in my live book review of The Fifth Season, click here to go to my Instagram IGTV channel.