This is my first novel by N. K. Jemisin. I found her writing and characterization excellent and her world-building second to none, but the book is just too darkly misanthropic for me. This is a book, after all, that opens up with a scene of a woman kneeling distraught by the corpse of her toddler son who has been beaten to death by his father, and it goes downhill from there. Steeply.
There is one scene, roughly half-way through the book, that really conveys the essence of what it feels like to read The Fifth Season. The protagonist for this section (there are actually three, although they end up being the same person, which is far too obvious far too early on to count as any kind of spoiler) is a young girl at a militaristic school for magic kids. She has, by this point, recovered from the gentle man who saved her from her own family breaking her fingers one at a time to prove a point about his willingness to harm her for the greater good. So the stakes are high, because any lapse of self-control on the part of the students is ground for harsh retribution, but at this point the narrative has settled into a bit of a comfortable routine: young character surviving at a tough, hostile school. In particular, some unknown jealous peers have started to frame her for infractions. She knows she will only survive the coming years if she is able to identify the ringleader of the group that is sabotaging her. So she reaches out to one of the other misfits, a girl with vast talent who is even farther out on the ragged edge of losing control due to her own tormentors. Together, they team up and hatch a clever scheme to unveil their common persecutors.
By this point you’ve been lulled into a cheerful complacency. It’s a textbook YA setup and—for a moment—you might forget that this is not a YA novel. More than that, it’s so similar to Ender’s Game that you’re sure that the hero’s scheme—though it might have some unexpected repercussions—is basically going to work. You think that this story might actually have some upswing: some children who, for a while at least, don’t get tortured, molested, raped, murdered, or all four.
And, at first, it does. Together with her new friend, they successfully force the bullies’ hands, revealing both the ring-leader and the specific bully who (in this case) stole the main character’s shoes while she was bathing to cause her to fail an inspection.
And then it all goes to Hell. The kid who took the shoes starts arguing with the ringleader—right there in the room in front of all the other kids and the adult supervisors—and the next thing you know the ringleader is describing how the kid had to allow an adult staff member to molest her in return for alcohol to spike the main character’s drink (another attempt to frame her as a rule-breaker). The child who was molested is sobbing in front of the entire dormitory, begging desperately “You promised not to tell,” while the ringleader accuses her of enjoying the molestation, imitating the sounds that she made as she was abused. As if that wasn’t bad enough—and it’s pretty bad—the next revelation is that the main character’s new friend was the one who had singled her out for torment in the first place. So much for a couple of loners finding out that they can rely upon each other! This new “friend” shows not a hint of remorse as she tells the main character that she did exactly what she had to do: find someone else for the bullies to torment so that they would take the pressure off of her.
That, in a nutshell, is how reading this entire book feels. (It might feel like I’ve given you a lot of detail, but—as I said—none of it is plot relevant. This kind of emotional carnage is just scenery in The Fifth Season.) All the ingredients are there for an exciting story, but then it all gets twisted in the darkest and evilest ways possible. There are no true friends. There is no true love. Everyone lies. Everyone betrays everyone else.1 The main character, of course, is no exception. But luckily by the time she gets around to drowning her own child (a different one, not the one that gets beaten to death later) the routine has become so predictable that you’re not surprised or horrified, just detached. (And by the way, these are far, far, far from the worst fates that are graphically depicted as falling upon the children of the characters in this book.)
Is a book bad if it’s unrelentingly grim? I’m not sure. I am not the kind of person who necessarily needs a happy ending. The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 and Brave New World and Never Let Me Go are all sci-fi books with grim worlds and ambiguous or outright tragic endings. I love them all. But I would say that at a certain point it is possible for depiction of evil to cross a line into a kind of, if not commission, at least an enabling via desensitization. Barring that, it’s also certainly true that any literary device—pressed to the extreme—becomes self-parody. By the end of this novel I had far, far passed the point of caring and had arrived at the point where I found each successive revelation of horror veering closer and closer into humor. Honestly, this book is only one or two tragedies short of becoming A Series of Unfortunate Events.
I am very, very glad that I read it because—if nothing else—N. K. Jemisin is an important writer for understanding so much of the political feuding that is happening in the science fiction community, and I wanted to get my own assessment of her skills as a writer. The accusation is that her writing is the beneficiary of some kind of affirmative action. My assessment is that this is not the case. N. K. Jemisin, as far as I’m concerned, is a very skilled author. I hope to be able to write that well myself, one day. That being said, however, she doesn’t write the kind of book that I want to read. The monotonicity of The Fifth Season’s downward spiral blunts and then degrades its impact on this particular reader.