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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: The Fifth Season

I maintain that N.K. Jermisin was robbed of her Hugo in 2011 for her amazing work, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Well, her talent has been vindicated as she's won the Hugo in 2016 and 2017 for The Fifth Season and its sequel.

Unfortunately, The Fifth Season is nowhere as good as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great novel, and no doubt deserving of its Hugo as it's unlikely that any of the other nominees are anywhere as good. But there are several reasons it's not nearly as good:

  1. It's clearly a setup for two more books in the series. While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms turned out to be the first book of a trilogy, it told a story and wrapped everything up all in one novel. There was no padding, with reveal after reveal. The Fifth Season, by comparison, takes a more languid pace, with a few mysteries drawn out to novel form where Jemisin in her earlier novels would have dispatched with great prejudice in one quarter the length because that prior novel was full of ideas.
  2. The Fifth Season is trying to be a true science fiction novel. That's not a bad thing, but it's clear that Jemisin had to struggle to work out the science behind the science fiction, and as a result there's major plot devices that don't feel nearly as fantastic. It also feels like she's rationing her ideas, as though they wouldn't last 3 books if she didn't. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a pure fantasy, and Jemisin there ran wild, throwing off ideas with great profligacy.
The story is told in 3 strands, and as is typical of novels with literary pretensions, there's an attempt to provide a mystery as to what ties the 3 strands of narrative together. One of the strands is told in second person, which doesn't quite work, there's nothing in that strand that couldn't have been done better than in 3rd person, other than that it would have given away the common character in all 3 strands too quickly.

The characters are ok, not particularly likable, and rather prone to making major mistakes all the time. The world itself is interesting, though I'm very skeptical that any human society could survive the kind of regular cataclysms Jemisin depicts in the novel, special powers or no.

All in all, the novel turned out to be a fairly mediocre novel. I hope the other novels in the series (and their reveals) are good enough to justify the time I spent reading this one.

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