Learning Perception from N. K. Jemisin's "The Fith Season"
Updated: Jan 2
Jemisin's writing style truly sets her apart from most fantasy writers. It caught me by surprise that her story opened with such a cynical narrator and included sections of a second-person point of view. The first thing that really got me invested was her choice of presentation; narration choice and her commitment to "beginning with the end."
The first chapter reveals a mysterious man and a strange inhuman companion while the setting unfolds with layers of geographic detail, indirectly identifying the driving force of the plot - Evil Earth and his rage. Jemisin demonstrates genius selectivity in her chapters, especially what she chooses to add at the end of each of her chapters. Here is an excerpt she added to the end of Chapter 17:
[obscured] those who would take the earth too closely unto themselves. They are not masters of themselves; allow them no mastery of others.
- Tablet Two, "The Incomplete Truth," verse nine
This submission follows the ring test scene. It's not even a ring test that occurs (because it is not necessary for the story) it is the thought process Damaya has about it. It reflects her need to survive and her trained willingness to be controlled by the Fulcrum: "By this she understands, in a flash of intuition, that this is a test of more than orogeny. After all, most roggas are told of the test in advance, so that they can practice and prepare. This is happening now, without warning, because it is her only chance. She has proven herself disobedient. Unreliable. Because of this, Damaya will need to prove herself useful. If she cannot -"
The attitude of Jemisin's 2nd person narrator establishes authority and reluctant omnipotence to Essun, whom the narrator is speaking to. The belittling attitude of the speaker makes Essun appear almost insignificant for the reader. This figure also contributes to an ominous atmosphere because of its nebulous characteristics and its power over the story it is telling. Anything this narrator says is absolute which indirectly competes with the perception the readers have on the other chapters which are told in 3rd person past tense.
Jemison accomplished conflict between the reader and narrator by doing this. First by the tone of the 2nd person narrator. Lastly, by her use of the present tense. This allowed the narrator's immediate presence, making its cynical behavior all the more concerning.
Readers will discover the characters Essun, Syenite, and Damaya are the same person. Because of Jemisin's authority on perception, some readers will have only realized this moments before the reveal. This strategy allowed the reader to experience the impact society in the Stillness has on roggas. Additionally, it justifies Essun's earlier actions and attitudes in the novel.
As obvious as it seems, perception truly plays a key role in character development - I should say changing perception; naivety to cynicism or hopefulness to lunacy. The world does not stay the same and neither do the characters and the reader should experience that.