“The Fifth Season” is the last of the Hugo Award nominees, which means that it’s the one that won. That being said, it’s not a particularly good book.
Let me start with the non-standard format first. As I’ve said before, if you are going to go with a non-standard narrative format it had, in fact, better pay off, because you risk annoying the reader and even those who are neutral on the format are going to be disappointed if it doesn’t pay off. In this case, this is even more problematic because this is the first book in a series, and we’re going to want to see if this format can be carried across the remaining books. And it doesn’t seem like it can, here, which runs into the issue that it had, again, better have a reason for existing in the first book and not in the others.
Jemisin’s format here is a presentation of three stories in a rough round-robin: Damaya, Syenite and Essun. She leaves as a mystery how they all link to each other, which leads to more potential problems. As I’ve commented before — mostly wrt “Fate of the Jedi” and “Legacy of the Force” — if you combine multiple narratives in the same work then you run into issues if, say, a reader isn’t thrilled with one of them, as they end up rushing through parts of the book to get to the parts and narratives they’re actually interested in. This gets worse if they can’t even see the relation between the different narratives. At least if they can see how the details from one narrative work to enhance or explain events in the others, they can tolerate the narrative, but if they are or even seem mostly unrelated, it will annoy the readers. Additionally, there’s an issue if you don’t stick with that format all the way through. In this case, Damaya’s gets dropped out of a couple of round robins and is ditched by the end. If people liked that part — and at least early on it was the one I found most interesting — then it being left out to deal with sections that were less interesting will get annoying.
On top of that, Jemisin introduces another non-standard narrative in the Essun section, where she uses a second person narrative form, presumably in an attempt to engage the reader directly. But this in and of itself was a bit annoying at times — more on that later — but also made it seem like the main narrative while the other two were simply supporting narratives … but Jemisin does not revel how those support the main narrative until the end of the book.
Which leads to another potential problem: Jemisin leaves the link as a mystery, as I said above, for most of the book. But as I commented before wrt “Agents of SHIELD”, if you leave room for your audience to try to reason out the mystery, you run the risk of them coming up with a better answer than you do … and if they do, then when you make your big reveal their response will not be shock, but will instead be disappointment. When reading the book, I wondered if it might be reflecting three completely different timelines, revealing how things developed to that point. I had mostly forgotten about the prologue, which might have put the kibosh on that … or maybe not. But, at the end, the big reveal is … each narrative represents a point in Damaya’s/Syenite’s/Essun’s life. Which is a narrative that has been done before in other works and doesn’t seem that unique or, in fact, creative or impressive. If you figured out the link, the reveal won’t be impressive, and if you haven’t, you likely were hoping for something better than that. This is only made worse by the fact that there does not seem to be any content link between the three sections, so we don’t really see how the other sections apply to the main narrative until the very end, when everything is smushed together.
On top of that, even trying to pull this off requires more writing ability than Jemisin seems to have. At times, the tone in each narrative is inconsistent, as she at at least one point uses “You” in Syenite’s section and also uses names and the “she” pronoun inconsistently. If all three of them had easily noticeable differences in style, then some of the problems might have gone away, but I suspect that Jemisin might actually have been trying to do that and failed. Moreover, she too easily mixes modern technology like electricity with comments that they couldn’t have some technologies because it was lost or because the groundshakes wouldn’t allow it. But there’s no real explanation for this, such as where the power comes from — she drops the term “hydro” at one point but there’s no indication that she knows what that is — and there’s even an odd contradiction where she talks about there being telegraphs, as if a constantly shifting earth wouldn’t have a major impact on telegraph poles. Thus, the mix of technologies sounds more like something of convenience rather than the societies building properly over top of older technology, even though she drops that idea a number of times. Overall, it’s not a particularly well-written work.
Now we get to the key measure of the first book in a series: how well does it set everything up for the remaining books, and how well does it make the reader want to read the rest of the series? The book doesn’t do a bad job of setting up the world, but doesn’t do a particularly good job either, by which I mean that it doesn’t really make the world one that the reader finds so interesting that they want to find out what happens next in that world. The other way to build reader interest is to build up an overarching plot — “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”, it seems to me, tries to do that — but “The Fifth Season” doesn’t build up much of a plot at all, other than “End of the world”. What Jemisin tries to do is use the shocking reveal/cliffhanger method — think “Who Shot J.R?” — to make people want to read the next book to see where she’s going with that plot hook. Unfortunately, her big reveals are: Essun is the current version of the other three narratives, her ex-sex buddy — really, that’s pretty much all he is — is the person from the prologue that destroyed the big city and has come back to talk about the fact that there is no moon (that the moon being destroyed might be what’s causing the groundshocks was lampshaded earlier). Well, and maybe that this was Earth and something happened to the moon. Is this all magic? Is there a Father Earth? Or is this all going to be explained mystically or scientifically? We don’t know and, most importantly, based on the work itself we don’t care, because for the most part no one else cares either. So Jemisin tries for a “Dun, dun, dunnnnnn!” ending to make us want to pick up the next book … but hasn’t developed it enough for it to actually be that surprising a reveal. This means that the main reason she wants us to be waiting with bated breath for next book falls flat.
Overall, it’s not a particularly good book, boring at times, and severely flawed. It’s not a book that I wanted to hurl against a wall, but that’s mostly because at best it was serviceable and at worst boring.
So, that’s the last of them. Next week: overall comments and my overall analysis of their relative rankings. And note that I’m not giving “No Award” to anything, so it’ll be a straight — and fair — ranking.
And here are my notes while reading “The Fifth Season”:
First Reading: Up to Damaya’s broken hand
– First, on the eccentric writing style. Again, if you are going to use a non-standard style that might cause problems for your readers, it has to pay off. Bringing the diverse stories together in an interesting way will do this. But if it was to go like this for the entire trilogy, it would be very, very annoying. However, if it doesn’t, then there had better be a VERY good reason to do it in the first book.
– This is made worse by the fact that only one of the three (four?) subplots or sections is in that specific personal “You” style. Making that one stand out and making it more personal positions that section as the critical one, which is furthered by the Prologue. This then positions the other sections as supplementary to that one, which means that when they are all brought together we will want to know how they impact THAT section. If all of them were in that same personal style, or if they all had different styles to reflect the characters talked about in them, that would have been different. But as it is, they come across as nothing more than sections supporting the overall narrative that we’re supposed to focus on.
– And that overall main narrative is the LEAST interesting of the sections, with the least interesting character. Damaya’s sections probably contain the most interesting characters and the most interesting plot. It certainly is the best at world-building. And it’s also the one that’s pretty much in a standard fantasy format.
– Moreover, that special format is irritating and patronizing a lot of the time, especially in the asides.
– The divisions of technology are confusing. They have flush toilets, telegraphs, and running water … but pavement makes no sense because of the shifting of the earth in “The Stillness”. This might be explained later, but so far it’s looking like technology of convenience … and since so far none of the advanced technology has actually in any way really mattered to the plot — ie it hasn’t allowed for something that we couldn’t allow for otherwise — it comes across as LAZY convenience.
– Are all the characters that are in any way sympathetic going to be women again, like in Uprooted?
– So far, it’s better than Seveneves, and right in the mix with Uprooted and Ancillary Mercy.
Second Reading: After Damaya’s bully problem
– It would be nice if, by this point, halfway through, there was a plot.
– Putting aside the deliberate “you” sections, her writing is a little off at times. For example, saying that Syen and Alabaster can’t move on explicitly when that section was more third-person Syen viewpoint is awkward.
– In terms of the individual sections, Essun’s has a plot but has been meandering for most of the book so far, Syen’s has no plot, and Damaya’s has the most focused character development plot but the bullying section bogs down.
– Syen and Alabaster are both totally unsympathetic and annoying characters, and Syen is only happy with Alabaster when he is a total jerk to someone who is not her. And we essentially had two sections of them back to back, which is not likely to make us pleasantly disposed towards the book.
– Most of the worldbuilding so far is explicit exposition. The worst thing about that is that the most interesting parts ARE the explicit worldbuulding.
– I hope these separate sections will join in some way or provide some kind of pay off by the end of the book.
Third Reading: After the big reveal.
– I commented when talking about “Fate of the Jedi” that the problem with mixing narratives is that if the reading doesn’t particularly like a section, they end up grinding their way through those sections while waiting for the sections they care about to continue. This is much worse, especially since we don’t really know how they are related.
– If Jemisin had stuck to the straight round robin, this would have been better, but since she drops Damaya’s section out for a few cycles, we’re left thinking that there’s some reason she does that … and can’t think of one. A straight round robin would be telling three stories that you hope are all linked up at the end, and switching from one section to another with information that seems to matter — no matter how vague — to the other would make sense. But we don’t really seem to have that. Syenite’s and Damaya’s MIGHT link up at the end, but didn’t before that, and Essun’s still doesn’t seem to link directly to those events.
– The sections are BORING. Partly because there’s no established plot yet connecting things. At 200 – 300 pages in, even in the first book of a trilogy, the basic idea, at least of this book, should be established.
– Again there’s a presumption that we should know and care more about what’s going on than we do.
– And the big reveal … is the most banal and cliched reveal imaginable, tracing I presume through three different stages of her life. Does this have an impact on the bigger picture? I’m skeptical that it will, and so will just be used to get us to think of the person or try to build her character. And since the current character — Essun — is not a particularly interesting character, that’s not likely to do much.
– On the trans character: it has no impact on us because we have no idea how such things are thought of in this world, but it is explicitly mentioned so we know that it happened. So I’m not sure what the point of it was supposed to be.
Fourth Reading: To end.
– Jemisin needs to work on her writing. Even in what is presumably an edited book, there are a number of noticeable cases where she slips up (in this section, using a “You” in Syenite’s section) and a number of cases where a stronger writing ability could have improved the work( in the previous section, using names because she seemingly couldn’t use even one “she” pronoun without making it confusing, despite it being in a section where “She” generally meant “Syenite”).
– What was the point of the three sections? It can’t be carried forward to the next book because of how this one ended, and it didn’t add to the character all that much. Worse, by splitting up the narrative we don’t get the chance to spend as much time with the individual character and story as much as we might otherwise, which means that we don’t care as much about those plots and characters, which means that when it matters we aren’t as caught up in the action. Also, this definitely suffers from us not liking one or the other sections. Syenite’s, for example, are full of unsympathetic characters, an absence of plot, and shifting timescales, and makes up a lot of the book.
– The link between the sections in terms of plot — and even in terms of character — comes too late. And the link seems to be more character than anything with the plot anyway, which makes us wonder, again, why we should care.
– Alabaster kicks off the Season, it seems. Why should we care, then, when he returns?
– The worst kept secret in the book is the destruction of the moon in an earlier age — anyone with half a brain can figure it out from the “killed Earth’s only child” line — and ending there is not a cliffhanger that should make anyone rush out to buy the next book. Thus, it fails in its duty as the first book in a trilogy to make us want to go out and buy the next book.
– This is not a book I’d recommend.
Tags: Hugo Award Assessment