When I first sat down to write a review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, all I managed to produce was a narrative about my own queerness. This is my second attempt, and even now, I’m struggling not to make it personal. I feel – defensive of queerness, I think, or maybe just tired. A few months ago, I finally realised I was genderqueer as well as bisexual, which epiphany I’m still fully processing, and it’s left me feeling raw. It’s disorienting to suddenly look back over nearly three decades of your life and realise, with a sort of belated weariness, how hella fucking repressed you’ve always been – how repressed you still are, in fact, because identifying your own reactions doesn’t magically change them – and as such, I’m on something of a hair trigger as regards queer tragedy in narrative.
It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s a lot of queer tragedy going around these days. I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, but I could really have done without the dead queer man at the finale. Being queer and a fan of Supernatural is an exercise in masochism at the best of times, but then Charlie Bradbury winds up slashed to death in a bathtub, and you start questioning your choices all over again. I was looking forward to The Traitor Baru Cormorant for ages, but I couldn’t even get through the first two chapters without screaming internally.
And now there’s The Fifth Season, and I just –
Look. This is a really hard review to write, okay? Because I fucking love Jemisin’s books, and in terms of technical execution, The Fifth Season is her strongest yet. The worldbuilding is phenomenal; ditto the characterisation, the writing, the plot. Her decision to write Essun’s sections in the seldom-used second person immediate is a stylistic gamble that absolutely pays off, forcing the reader to not just identify with, but to be addressed as a complicated, powerful, competent woman of colour – a woman mourning the murder of her son, no less – and if I have to explain to you why that’s an inherently radical thing right now, then clearly, you haven’t been watching the news. I devoured the whole book python-style, and even as we speak, I’m still making mental grabby hands for the sequel. The Fifth Season is very expressly a novel about oppression; about the monstrous things people do when they stop believing this group or that is fully, truly human, and why you cannot collaborate with or usefully work to change from within a system that’s fundamentally predicated on your inborn inferiority. In the world of the Stillness, orogenes – magic-users who control seismic activity – are both feared and hated, either killed outright for their differences or brutally enslaved, and right from the get-go, zero punches are pulled. The story begins with a mother, Essun, reacting to her husband’s murder of their three-year-old orogene child, and throughout the story, the ways in which children especially are brutalised, abused and dehumanised by a system that deems them monstrous from birth is depicted with a chilling internality: the descriptions aren’t graphic, but then, they hardly need to be.
Far more insidious than overt displays of physical violence are the ways in which such children – and, by extension, the adults they become – are taught to fear and hate themselves. Essun often thinks of herself as a monster, as less than human, and whereas Seth Dickinson, at the start of Baru Cormorant, failed to convince me of how and why a homophobic culture could so thoroughly and swiftly indoctrinate children into mistrusting their own loving families, the orogene self-hated of Jemisin’s world is utterly believable. It’s not just evident in the cruelty and intolerance of the pervading culture: it’s that trained orogenes are denied a full understanding of their magic, not just intellectually, but linguistically, constantly struggling to articulate core parts of themselves for lack of a language tailored to their experiences. Though Jemisin’s world is racially diverse and, in some ways, egalitarian – both men and women can be designated Breeders or hold Leadership positions; trans individuals are accepted in some castes, but not in others – orogenes are slaves, and though they might lie to themselves about it, accepting what they’re taught, that doesn’t make their oppression any less vicious.
Which is, I suspect, why the treatment of the queer characters rubs me so raw. Being orogene is metaphorically representative of various forms of systematic oppression; but as queer characters in this setting still explicitly suffer for and with their queerness as well as for being orogene, it’s much, much harder for a queer reader to maintain a healthy degree of emotional distance. And thus, the problem of Alabaster: a queer man repeatedly forced to have sex with women as part of, effectively, an orogene breeding programme. All his past relationships with men have ended, it’s either implied or stated outright, in tragedy. Not, of course, that any orogene in this setup is exactly free to choose their partners, but whereas Syenite, with whom he’s asked to produce his latest child, is coerced into sex she doesn’t want only by dint of being orogene, Alabaster is additionally coerced to act against his own sexual orientation – a fact of which Syen, and therefore the reader, is initially unaware.
Which leaves me torn: because, on the one hand, it’s important that Jemisin has acknowledged the additional, heteronormative burden of sex in these circumstances – that is, where two parties are being forced to produce a child at someone’s request, regardless of their own desires – as imposed on queer orogenes; but on the other hand, it means you’ve got queer characters being subject to an extra layer of oppression. And if the story ended differently, then I’d be applauding right now, because genrewise, The Fifth Season is arguably a fantasy dystopia, and I am 9000% done with the recent trend in sexually coercive dystopias that are too solidly fixated on magical straight romance saving the day to even bother acknowledging queerness at all, let alone prominently.
Alabaster just broke my fucking heart. Which isn’t to say the rest of the story didn’t move me; it did, powerfully so. Jemisin doesn’t flinch from dark subject matter, and being as how The Fifth Season is the first book in an apocalyptic series, it was hardly going to end on a cheerful note. Nobody in this novel gets a happy ending, partly because the narrative hasn’t actually ended yet, but mostly because there’s nothing happy about it. Essun’s son is still dead, her murdering husband has still absconded with their daughter, the world is still ending, and orogenes are still hunted and feared. I wasn’t expecting Alabaster to prove the exception to the rule just because he’s a queer man, you know? I just didn’t want him to suffer in ways that are explicitly related to – inextricably bound with – our narratives of queer tragedy. He could have suffered in parallel to his queerness, rather than because of it, or in ways that were compounded by it, without compromising the thematic integrity of the story.
But this is what happens instead: his lover, a bisexual man, is brutally murdered, his family is destroyed, and when he shows up at the finale, we’re told he’s dying, physically incapacitated by a sort of magical illness-slash-transformation that’s steadily turning parts of him to stone, leaving him in excruciating pain, and I just – that is the fucking essence of queer tragedy, you know? Dead lover, no family, physically debilitated, terminally ill. And I know, I know this is a book about oppression, I know it’s literally Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies all round, but nobody else in the novel suffers explicitly racist, explicitly sexist persecution in the same way the queer characters experience explicitly queer persecution, like Tonkee being kicked out of her family for being trans or underage Jasper being publicly shamed and outed and punished for enjoying it (we’re told) when an older man touches him sexually: everyone else is persecuted just for being orogene, and while we’re never explicitly told that queerness is bad, we’re never shown any positive iterations of it that don’t end in tragedy, either.
So: The Fifth Season is a powerful, important novel with a lot of intelligent, lamentably relevant things to say about structural violence, bigotry, dehumanisation, colonisation, historical erasure and systematic oppression. But as much as I love the rest of it, I can’t overlook the queer tragedy elements; because in a novel where every ugliness of persecution is being put under the microscope and subversively examined through the lens of orogeny, it stands out that this one trope still holds true. And from the bottom of my poor queer heart, I really wish it didn’t.