The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin
On a continent where the ground is unstable and communities must be in readiness for disaster a woman with useful but dangerous powers mourns for her murdered child. A girl is taken away from her ordinary life and shown her place in society. A young woman is sent on an assignment that goes wildly awry.
This story displays incredible imagination and emotional depth. It's secondary world fantasy with a setting that feels fresh, detailed and well-drawn. I have read a lot of fantasy, but I've not read a world like this one. It's cool to see how a particular aspect of the environment has so thoroughly impacted society, culture and history. The way that communities operate and the common culture that holds them together is depicted well, but this no homogeneous society. Communities vary depending on size, wealth and status, and the people of the continent come in different shapes, appearances and roles which affect their attitudes and behaviours. The reader is introduced to various pieces of lore and vocabulary from the world without a lot of heavy exposition and this creates depth. By following characters on the fringes of society we get glimpses of what is considered normal, why that doesn't apply to certain people, and how normalcy can change very suddenly.
I don't want to go into plot details, because this is a better read if you don't know a lot going into it, but the story starts with something big and somehow manages to ramp things up. The book switches about, and the narrative structure is very cleverly done, at least I felt quite clever when I figured it out and was impressed with the method. There are sections of the book that are told with an immediacy and intimacy in a style that isn't often used in fiction. It's the kind of thing that seems like it shouldn't work, but the author skilfully uses an unusual writing style to make the reader identify strongly with a character who is going through something brutal. The characters go through a lot of changes and take various emotional blows and the reader feels each keenly meaning that this isn't an easy read but it is a thoroughly engaging one.
The book explores how society controls certain groups of people who are considered to be dangerous through hatred, fear and exploitation of their resources. Some of this is direct and lethal prejudice, but some of it is subtler and secretive, using the skill and resources of people to support a system that hates them. It also shows how the people who are victims of this hatred and exploitation can come to believe what's said about them and buy into their own oppression. It presents alternative ways of living that exist on the edges of, and hidden beneath, mainstream society. There's also exploration of how friendship, family and community can sustain a person and how these change in times of extremity. The story and characters don't stick to the traditional ideas of love, family and gender that exist in the mainstream of our own society, which is refreshing. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fresh, powerful fantasy.