I’ve always been bad with words.
No, that isn’t quite right. I’ve always been bad with the spoken word. Whenever I open my mouth (well, unless it’s to eat dessert), anxious thoughts fly in, get trapped, and start rattling around endlessly.
Am I shaping my mouth around this word correctly will the trajectory of my tongue slip one day and reveal the accent of a second-generation Asian-American please don’t let my lips spit out words faster than my mind can focus just to stave off the lurking silences th-
Ah. Silence. What a strange little mistress. Its solitary presence caressingly allows my mind to putter along comfortably, immersed in books and work and directionless introspection, until it’s joined by company. Then, it becomes a nasty, temperamental affair, jealous of and indiscriminately intruding upon the light conversation that wells up between living beings, demanding its own stifling share of attention.
But my relationship with silence’s role in being alone versus feeling lonely is a complex love triangle and not what I want to write about today.
Setting words to paper has always been more comfortable for me. Wrapped in silence’s patient embrace, I can try out different words and styles and even thoughts until I sound my way through the feelings that come so easily and forcefully, but are so difficult to convey with any degree of accuracy.
Anyway, despite my fondness for writing as a medium of communication, it’s been years since I’ve made a serious attempt to write anything outside of class and this attempt wouldn’t exist either if not for my stumbling into an astonishing number of mindblowing books this past year.
As a child and adolescent, I read a ridiculous amount as a means of escaping this world and all of the internal/external conflicts that came with it; but now, with a few years of college under my belt, I’ve become a better resident here. I’m here to stay, with my feet planted firmly (or at least I’ve taken off my pointe shoes and come to a mid-relevé ), and I want to explore my novels with a perspective grounded in reality.
So welcome to Off the Margin, a newly hatched world waiting to be filled by the sometimes intense, sometimes muddled unraveling of my thoughts outside of the safety of my books. I read too quickly to think sometimes, so maybe it’s better to let my fingers feel out the thoughts for me in the form of book reviews. This is the end of one world and the beginning of another. Really. It all began with astonishing book #1:
Review of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
you are here
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
There are roughly three levels of distress. There are personal tragedies, there are national disasters, and then there are world-ending, apocalyptic calamities. The Fifth Season encompasses all of these and, along the way, smoothly pulls in issues of race and oppressive power structures, romantic love and how it can just be, familial love and the pain that too much love can inflict. It’s beautifully written, fooled around with all my heartstrings, and is somehow also full of relevant, thoughtful depictions of modern issues. It’s the groundbreaking fantasy novel that I didn’t know I craved.
After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you.
Post-Tolkien fantasy novels have fallen into a cliched pattern studded with young cis white male heroes and fortuitously-acquired wise mentors. The cities are based heavily off of Western medieval culture, then populated with white-centric characters. It’s a formula that works, but The Fifth Season made me realize that the genre has so much room to metamorphose. Fantasy should be pushing at boundaries both cultural and visual, not stagnating in the same pool of hackneyed words.
Told in a second person narrative (has anyone seen this in a novel before??) that follows the intertwining stories of Essun, Syenite, and Damaya, the plot of The Fifth Season is a bit confusing to untangle, especially as there’s also so much detailed world-building and beautiful writing to claim your attention, but it’s so fulfilling to fill gaps in your understanding as the novel and series progresses, hitting aha moment after unexpected aha moment. On this note, give the novel 50 pages or so to get into the flow of things. I promise answers are seamlessly stitched together by the end.
This world is called the Stillness, a super-continent that’s constantly wracked by earthquakes and volcanoes. Here people are wary of, but prepared for, civilization-ending climate changes every few hundred years. In fact, the land is littered with the mysterious remains of past civilizations. It’s shared with orogenes, people born with the ability to control the earth by drawing heat from living organisms and a population of sentient stone humanoids.
Listen, listen, listen well. There was an age before the Seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike.
(Life had a mother, too. Something terrible happened to Her.)
Despite all this though, this is a world that could be our own. Sure, there’s magic and destruction on a level that we can’t even comprehend, but conceivably, completely believably, this could be the result of our own world after humans mess up big. Nuclear warfare? Climate change? Maybe. The point is that part of the reason this novel is so powerful is that, unlike other fantasy novels, it’s a dystopian future that really feels like a warning. Its society still hasn’t resolved many of the issues that we’re struggling with today, and they eventually lead to the end of the world. Orogenes are feared because of their deadly powers, yet necessary to soothe the Earth’s many earthquakes. So, society hates them and exploits them, teaches them to fear themselves and leashes them as though they aren’t human too. But this lopsided power dynamic can’t hold forever.
Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.
In other respects though, The Fifth Season actually paints a tender portrayal of how our world could look if we just stop trying to box humans into neat same-race, straight relationships. I won’t spoil too much, but the polyamorous relationship that Syenite finds herself in is so full of warmth and intensity and just plain love that it’s really uplifting and restorative, especially in comparison to Essun’s marriage that results in the father murdering her son and kidnapping her daughter.
Essun, Syenite, and Damaya are another strong reason that The Fifth Season has earned a place on my favorites shelf. Damaya is a little girl, scared and powerless, but hasn’t lost her capacity for curiosity and a little bit of rule-breaking. Syenite is in her prime, talented and self-assured, but seems perfectly tamed by the Fulcrum. Essun is middle-aged, grieving, brown-skinned, angry, physically imposing, unafraid to break the world, a schoolteacher turned atypical heroine who holds together her shattered past and present through sheer force of will.
Read for character development evocative of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, world-building on the scale of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and a dry, beautiful voice reminiscent of Weike Wang’s Chemistry.
THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.