Books – The Fifth Season & Nigerians In Space

As saddened by the whole Hugo ‘puppy’ bullshit as any right-thinking person would be, it did introduce me to The Fifth Season, so thank you for that guys.

Incidentally, Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians In Space bubbled up to the top of my ‘to read’ pile too.

I loved both these books.

The Fifth Season deserves all its plaudits of course. Jemisin’s prose struck me as Kim Stanley Robinson’s did in Aurora. It is clean and highly effective. It’s deceptively straightforward and so it’s taught me a lot, made me think about my own prose and the choices I make. I know there’s the whole second person thing going on, but Jemisin has harnessed deep and rich world-building without elaborate expository passages, driving it instead through the needs, observations and actions of the handful of characters who are the focus for the book, along with some neat aphorisms and snippets from ‘historical’ texts that efficiently layer the sense of place and history. The characters are very much ‘of the world’, which for me is the essence of excellent world-building. Jemisin shows me just how far I have yet to go!

This future earth is riven with a fragile geology, but the earth itself, the stone and magma, can be controlled by humans who are born with the gift of ‘orogeny’. At the same time, this immense power, its danger, makes them feared and despised, for untrained, they can kill with a mere thought. They are slaves who protect the humanity that lives in the ‘Stillness’, a stillness of earth that they manage. Where Orogenes are not murdered the moment they’re discovered in any of this world’s communities, they are taken to ‘The Fulcrum’ where they are trained to use their powers, but are controlled by the fearsome Guardians, who can nullify their powers, and hence enslave them. A catastrophic and intentional fracture of the earth in this ‘Stillness’ starts the novel, but the causes of the act are very much what the rest of the novel is about.

We follow the stories of the Orogenes Damaya, Essun, Syenite and Alabaster. Essun, an Orogene in hiding, has had her young son murdered by her husband and his father, and sets off in search of him and her surviving daughter, orogeny being passed down genetically. Our protagonists’ stories inevitably intertwine as this enormous fracture in the Stillness induces an apocalyptic darkness. For me, the book is most memorable in its exploration of the fragility of childhood and fears of parenthood and its conclusion is both harrowing and shocking. I’m looking forward to reading the second one.

Nigerians In Space might sound like an airport thriller (albeit an off-beat one); expat Nigerian scientists are persuaded by a mysterious government minister to return to Nigeria to start a space programme, only for them to start getting murdered one by one before they can make it home. Wale, the first we meet, works at NASA and ends up on the run with his family in South Africa trying to piece together where this minister, Bello, has got to.

But the novel is as much about the exotically skinned supermodel daughter of a Zimbabwean freedom fighter and a small time crook who breeds amazing abalone for a chinese gangster.

What makes it special, riveting in fact, is the vulnerability of these characters and how the world around them buffets and moves them. The novel eschews all the obvious turns of plot. Our protagonists are not especially strong or brave, they behave, and suffer, like we would were we to find ourselves up against ruthless killers; they are powerless but driven to survive. Wale in particular cuts a sad and proud figure, trying to raise his son under a new identity but getting drawn back into his past.

For them all, in their different ways, it is the moon that draws them together as much as the machinations and promises of the mysterious Bello. That sounds cryptic on the surface, but it’s a wonderful and clever narrative glue that holds them and the book in its gravity. Olukotun is a brilliant storyteller and this book deserves significantly more publicity than it’s getting. I doubt I’ll read much better this year.

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