Header image: “Always Raining, Always Dry” by John Fowler. CC BY.Note: This essay will be full of spoilers for both The Fifth Season and Updraft, so if you haven’t read either/both: you have been warned. I loved both books and they have a lot of thematic similarities—hence this essay—and I recommend both. They both have weird-as-hell-yet-solid worldbuilding, interesting characters—particularly the protagonists—and plots that take some unexpected turns while examining different kinds of oppression.
Disclosure: I received copies of both books from their respective publishers. Additionally, Wilde is a friend and Jemisin and I are socially acquainted and I reviewed her previous novels for RT Book Reviews.
This is not going to be a super-detailed or academic discussion, just a few things that I’ve been turning over in my head since I read the two books that I’d like to see other people talking about as well. Because more people talking about books is a good thing.
When you compare the plot summaries, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season doesn’t seem to have much in common with Fran Wilde’s Updraft. But there are, in fact, thematic similarities between the two that I find incredibly interesting.
The first thing that struck me about both is that both novels are set in post-apocalyptic scarcity societies (or societies that have been scarcity societies in the past). In the case of Jemisin’s book, the world is extremely active on a seismic level while in Wilde’s there is—literally—no ground, the inhabitants living above the clouds in towers of living (but probably not sentient) bone. But despite the surface differences, both settings have more in common than just a whole lot of weirdness. (I love weird settings.)
Each setting is governed by strict lore and rules that have been passed down through the generations—and the purpose of the rules isn’t always clear. Although sometimes it is: the stockpiling of supplies in the Stillness for decades of climate change due to ash in the atmosphere, shutters of the bone spires to keep out the skymouths.
The superstitions are a little less rooted in practicalities—both societies are hierarchical and in Wilde’s City, to be perceived as unlucky is to be relegated to the lowest and closest levels of the towers and in Jemisin’s Stillness, orogenes—those who can can control the seismic activity—are enslaved and used abominably in service to the state.
At the center of each book is a female protagonist: Kirit in Updraft and Damaya/Syenite/Essun in The Fifth Season (I warned you about spoilers).
Kirit is a young woman on the cusp of adulthood when her world is upended by her inability to follow the rules, the discovery that she can shout down skymouths, and her temper.
Essun is a mother whose youngest child has been murdered by her husband and his father for having the unfortunate luck to be born an orogene like his mother. Essun’s life history is revealed throughout the course of the book and it is only towards the end that the reader learns that the three point of view characters—Damaya, Syenite, and Essun—are the same person at different stages of her life.
Both Singers and orogenes are feared in their respective societies, but while Singers hold their society’s power, orogenes are at the mercy of it. Yet both Kirit and Essun are aware of the oppressive systems and they each, in their own way, rebel.
At the heart of both books are the secretive organizations (with a school-component): the Spire and the Fulcrum. This is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t feel tired or overused in either book.
Jemisin uses the Fulcrum to tell us more about the way the Stillness works, particularly around the orogenes. It is through the Fulcrum that we learn that the orogenes are bred to each other with no regard to their personal preferences, that the Guardians have some sort of control over them, and that any status they hold is, ultimately, illusory.
Unlike the Fulcrum, Wilde’s Spire is also the center of government for the City and charged with not just enforcing the laws for the Singers, but for all the citizens. So in some ways, by becoming a Singer, Kirit has gained power—but her choice, much like Essun’s enslavement, is not made freely. She’s coerced into making the choice to become a Singer, because to choose otherwise would be to put her family at risk.
Essun—Damaya is not even given the illusion of choice. Her Guardian comes to take her to the Fulcrum and he impresses upon her how little power and choice she has in her life. This pattern continues as she grows into Syenite and is told to accompany Alabaster, a powerful orogene, in order to not only learn from him but also to become impregnated by him. As Alabaster is a gay man, this is an at best unpleasant task for both of them—but it’s also not Alabaster’s first time at that particular rodeo, as Syenite and the reader come to learn. To their sorrow.
The shape of each of these books is very different as are their respective genres—Updraft is adventure fantasy with a young protagonist and The Fifth Season is epic fantasy. There are significant differences in voice, pacing, and structure—Updraft is quite straightforward while The Fifth Season is anything but (and what is really extraordinary about it is that the book should be a mess from a structural perspective and yet: it is not).
But they have an awful lot in common, too.
I highly recommend both.