This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.
There was a time that fantasy novels ruled my reading life. I significant number of my tweenage days were The Bitterbynde Triology and The Chronicles of Narnia. But then I had this absurd feeling that I needed to ‘progress’. I ‘needed’ to learn to fluently read the Brönte sisters, and Austen, and Dickens because fantasy of the late 1990s wasn’t giving much more hope than fiction of the 1890s. Obviously, by the age of fourteen, I had reached the pinnacle of all reading if I could hone the ability to read a fusty old Victorian novel and do it gleefully. Gone was any pleasure I could possibly derive from three or four part fantasy epics written in modern English vernacular. I would forever dwell in the realm of Chekov, Stoker and – if I was daring – Homer.
Who needs dragons, bro?
I do. I need dragons.
I was. So wrong.
It’s writers like N. K. Jemisin that remind you that the world didn’t stop writing when a bunch of old white people up and died in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, they’ve always existed, I just needed some nudging in the right places from a fellow book-worm with a much broader read-range than myself. Genres come into being for reasons other than progression – it’s more like an exploration. The Fifth Season has reminded me that fantasy, like any good genre, continues to evolve.
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.
Then he breaks it.
The people of the Stillness live in perpetual fear of the earth, the very ground beneath their feet. Their entire lives are lived storing food, re-enforcing battlements, teaching their children how to survive, preparing for the next time the earth shakes and plunges their small societies into darkness for years, decades. Sometimes centuries. Humanity has survived these ‘seasons’ – the great periods of darkness, famine, pestilence and flooding that make up the history of their world, subject to the whims of an ever shifting earth. But there are some who can tame the shakes, feel the movements of the earth and quell them: the orogenes. They would be all-powerful, but for the Guardians. There are huge discs in the sky, no one knows why. And there’s something missing, something missing that might just explain why seasons last for years rather than months. Can the world go on like this forever?
And then a toddler accidentally breaks the earth – and Jemisin works her magic.
Some booksellers list this novel as sci-fi given the strong pseudo-science themes of the Stillness terminology. Others class it as fantasy mostly for the few fantastical creatures and the medievally aesthetic Jemisin describes throughout the novel. Neither category really fits – the tropes are not just bent but completely transcended. Jemisin doesn’t just combine sci-fi and fantasy, she is doing what genres do – evolving. But it’s not just the plot that’s ground breaking, it’s the people who populate it too.
The heroines are people of colour – in fact, most people in the novel are. One main character is a middle aged mother of two, another is into polyamory. Side characters include all of the queers. But here’s the good bit: IT’S NO BIGGIE. Either for the plot of in the writing. It just happens. These characters just are. I guess what I’m trying to say is, pubescent me thought my fantasy habit couldn’t go any further because the genre had arrived with white, male heroines (with the odd wealthy female thrown in for good measure), love-driven plots with a side-line in quelling the world’s latest existential threat. Done. Back to Dickens now – where obviously all the plot devices and character archetypes were worked out years ago. But suddenly here’s an author telling a fantastical story with characters that appear in my actual life: people who actually live, breathe, write and read in the 21st century.**
Would I read this book if it were about straight white dudes saving the day? Look, probably not honestly. It’s the true and effortless diversity of N. K. Jemisin’s writing that adds such depth and potential to her characters and her back stories. Sure, the prose isn’t poetic genius. But the pacing is excellent. The characters intricate. The plot is complex without unnecessary confusion or a boy-meets-girl meta structure. The best part though: IT’S A TRILOGY.
*Thank you for putting sci-fi fantasy back on my radar
**Yes, that’s why Dickens was so popular in his day. I get that now.