Last year I read The Fifth Season following a recommendation. I hadn’t heard of it or of its author, N.K. Jemisin, though perhaps I should have. Since 2010 Jemisin has been nominated for numerous awards for her novels, and The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Award.
Jemisin builds worlds. Her characters live full lives, play roles within and battle against social structures, and have complex cultures and beliefs. The worlds themselves have origin stories (whether true or not), and their own geologies and geographies. Like most fantasy authors she creates worlds that contain powers unlike our own, but unlike most fantasy authors her characters do not try and save the world order. Jemisin’s worlds, like our own, require change.
Fantasy and science-fiction has long been dominated by white male authors. That they should write mostly about struggles to preserve world orders, and of colonising other (often ‘empty’) worlds, is not too surprising. But Jemisin is a black woman and, in her own words, has
“…no particular interest in maintaining the status quo. Why would I? The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change.”
Jemisin challenges our expectations of what a fantasy novel can be by determinedly writing women of colour into a genre that for too long has given us an endless procession of white male saviours. Rather than saving the world, her characters participate in disorder, seeding and supporting changes that are intended to bring about the destruction of hierarchies, the end of long-standing regimes.
In The Fifth Season we meet Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, girls and women living in a world at risk of breaking apart, who accept or reject to varying degrees their places in a strictly ordered society. The power some characters possess is of an ambiguous source, little understood and tightly controlled by institutions that seek to use those able to wield it for their own ends. The events of this first book alone (The Fifth Season is the start of a trilogy) are epic in scope, and the emotional and physical changes wrought on the people and world are enormous.
Likewise The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The first book in The Inheritance trilogy begins with Yeine, a young warrior unexpectedly named heir by the grandfather who cast out her mother. Thrust into a power struggle far from home alongside enslaved gods who are as flawed and troubled as their mortal creations, Yeine fights to uncover her mother’s secrets and for the survival of herself and her people. The isolation of Yeine, the unnaturally inhibited power of the gods, and the ruthlessness of the politics creates an atmosphere of tension and latent horrors that build up to an explosive conclusion.
In all of Jemisin’s worlds characters are of different races and sexualities, have different cultures and beliefs, and uphold or resist the world order in different ways. Importantly, characters are never lone individuals. They may be isolated, but every character comes from somewhere, was at least once part of a community. They have personal and collective histories, come from wealthy and poor families, from powerful and weak communities. They have personal desires but also familial loyalties and rivalries, and such depth of character allows for subtle motivations.
Because characters are fully rounded they are highly relatable, and within Jemisin’s books are characters it is impossible not to care deeply about, sometimes in spite of deep flaws and unconscionable actions. She writes characters with whom the reader experiences joy and agonies, and for whom the reader finds themselves wishing for the catastrophic break-up of the world. Change can be violent, but it is sometimes necessary.
Jemisin has, within a short few years, written books that will surely be a major influence on the genre. Like her characters, Jemisin has challenged the status quo, defied expectations, and dealt a decisive blow to those who wish to keep their ‘world’ conservative, white, and male. Our world is more than that, our fiction must be too.
The Inheritance Trilogy begins with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, continues with The Broken Kingdoms, and concludes with The Kingdom of Gods.
The Fifth Season is the first of The Broken Earth trilogy that continues with The Obelisk Gate. The concluding book, The Stone Sky, is due for release later this year.