Obviously I am rather late to this. I love N.K. Jemisin’s work, but she doesn’t need me these days and there are lots of other books demanding to be read. Two things pushed the book up my “to read” pile. The first was it being nominated for a Hugo. The other was my finding out that there was a trans character in it.
Reviewing the first book in a series is always a bit challenging, because you don’t really know how things will develop. What I can say is that the set-up is spectacular. The world of The Fifth Season is one with considerably more geological instability than ours. Earthquakes and the like are so frequent that the people of this world are well aware of the danger of sudden climate disasters caused by seismic events. These are called “fifth seasons”, or just “Seasons”; and they lead to extinctions, collapse of civilizations and so on.
However, some people in this world have the ability to sense and manipulate geological activity. People with this talent are called Orogenes. The ordinary people hate and fear them, calling them “roggas”, but the Sanzed Empire has found a way of harnessing their abilities, and controlling them, so that it can keep going through Seasons, most of the time. The book begins with a huge cataclysm destroying Yumenes, the Sanzed capital, and ushering in a Season that promises to end the world.
The structure of the book is also fascinating. It follows the lives of three women: Essun, Damaya and Syenite. Essun’s story is told in real time as she flees the cataclysm. The other two stories are set in the past and fill in the back story of the world. Damaya is a young girl whose Orogene talent has just been discovered. She is being hauled off to Yumenes for her own protection, and to train her in the service of the Empire. Syenite is a young woman rising fast up the ranks of the Orogenes who is sent on a mission with Alabaster, an incredibly powerful and possibly insane senior colleague.
There is a thing that Jemisin does with the structure. It is clever. I worked it out when the first shoe dropped and was very impressed. I’m not telling you any more than that.
The book actually has two trans characters. One is noted simply in passing. The other looks like she will have a major role to play in later volumes. In both cases the issue is raised in a very matter-of-fact way. Here’s the first one, in the school at the Fulcrum, the Orogene HQ that Damaya attends.
The children at the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. Some speak Sanze-mat with different accents, having originated from different parts of the world. One girl has sharp teeth because it is her race’s custom to file them; another boy has no penis, though he stuffs a sock into his underwear after every shower; another girl has rarely had regular meals and wolfs down every one like she’s still starving.
By the way, Yumenes is on the equator; the Sanzed are typically dark-skinned.
The second trans character, Tonkee, is introduced in a similar way:
Fortunately it turns out that Tonkee did indeed bring all that water with her for a bath. She does this in front of you, shamelessly stripping down and squatting by a wooden basin to scrub at her pits and crotch and the rest. You are a little surprised to notice a penis somewhere amid this process, but, well, not like any comm’s going to make her a Breeder.
Tonkee is a scientist, or at least what passes for one in this world. A comm is a community, and Tonkee doesn’t seem much like the marrying kind to Essun. She’s too independent and filled with wanderlust.
Because Tonkee is in Essun’s story that means that civilization is collapsing around them. Jemisin notes this and takes the opportunity to explain something about how transition works in this world, and what problems Tonkee is going to encounter in the future.
Tonkee is off somewhere, probably shaving. She’s run out of something in the past few days, some biomest potion she keeps in her pack and tries not to let you see her drinking even though you don’t care, and she’s been sprouting beard stubble every few days because of the lack. It’s made her irritable.
That’s about it for the trans content, though obviously Tonkee’s troubles may continue in later volumes. Tonkee, of course, does much more, but her being trans is not relevant to those other things so it is not mentioned. Given what we find out about her, I’m sure that she’ll have a prominent role to play in future volumes. I am confident that Jemisin will continue to treat her in a respectful fashion (at least as far as the trans part of her character is concerned).
Gender politics finds its way into the story in other ways too. It turns out that Alabaster is gay. While this is socially acceptable, it is a major problem for him because his masters keep ordering him to breed with promising young female Orogenes in the hope of passing on his abilities. That’s why Syenite has been sent on a mission with him. Fortunately she takes it all in her stride after a while, and eventually the two of them end up in a poly relationship with a bisexual pirate captain. Awesome!
There’s not a lot more I can say at this point without massive spoilers, so I’m just going to add that I am not in the least surprised that the book is finding its way onto all sorts of award short lists. Some of my friends have ARCs of the next book, The Obelisk Gate, and say that it is just as good. I am eagerly looking forward to it.
For more information about N.K. Jemisin, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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