Clever and complex world building in this fantasy novel

In NK Jemison’s book The Fifth Season the world in which the characters live is broken. Its geology is fractious and regularly the world is consumed by volcanos, earthquakes and related disasters which wipe out most of humanity. Communities and culture have learned to anticipate this in the way they are structured and in the lore which attempts to prepare people for the next catastrophe. In the meantime the movements of the earth and the eruption of volcanoes are managed by a group of people who have the talent to control rock and other elements with their minds.

The author shows us this world through the eyes of three women. One is an older woman whose son has been killed by his father because he suspects that he has a latent talent. She is pursuing him and her kidnapped daughter whilst living with the fact that she has hidden her abilities and brought this fate upon herself. Her quest takes her across the world and from one community to another as she meets up with other loners who also have hidden talents. The second woman is experienced in managing the earth movements and is teamed up with an older, much more experienced man, to help a port reopen its harbour. She has always toed the part line and followed the rules but her companion reveals to her some of the abuses which are carried out to contain and restrain those with talent. The third woman is young and newly come into talent and is having to learn how she can use it and how she will fit in with what society expects of her.

Nowhere are the world and its problems explicitly explained to the reader. As you follow the stories of the three women the author fills in what you need to know whilst alternating the three narratives. This could leave the reader confused but it is expertly done and you come to a slow understanding of how the world works together with a sudden knowledge of how the three women’s stories merge together. It is very satisfying to come to understand exactly what is happening and how the three storylines connect.

I found this book a bit inaccessible at the start because you really don’t know what is going on but I was soon engaged by the three narratives and the stories of these women’s lives. By half way through the book I was having difficulty in putting it down. I already have the second book in this trilogy and am looking forward to seeing what the author does to move the story forward. An excellent fantasy novel full of great ideas and cleverly woven narratives.

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