Spoilers for The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
There are advantages and disadvantages to having multiple points of view (POVs). Jemisin not only uses the alternating POVs in an interesting way, these POVs also include a twist, which makes the way she swaps between characters an even more effective literary device. I thought it would be interesting to look at why a writer might pick multiple POVs – or why it’s sometimes best avoided – and what Jemisin, in particular, achieves through this narrative choice.
The Fifth Season weaves between three POVs, alternating between three characters. These turn out to be three timelines, following the same character at different stages of her life: her younger self (Damaya), herself in her twenties or so (Syenite), and her older self (Essun). The information is seeded in so that you might work this out very quickly – I did a few chapters in – or you might only find out when, at the end of Damaya’s arc, she mentions changing her name to Syenite.
This choice has a few obvious strengths. Firstly, Jemisin can give us backstory elements for Essun without flashbacks, simply by weaving three tales which give us, as the story progresses, all the information we might need about where Essun comes from, who she was, what made her who she is, and thus preparing us for what may happen from now on. Another advantage is that we get to see a lot of the world at once, without characters needing to travel long distance (which is useful as, in a fantasy world, they might be on foot or might not have access to quick modes of transportation). So we get to visit a lot more of the landscapes than we would, were we stuck with one person. That’s often the main advantage of multiple POVs in fantasy – think Game of Thrones, where the various characters each introduce us to a different part of Westeros, or beyond.
Jemisin also uses the three POVs as a way to balance giving the reader exposition. We get to explore the world with varying levels of wonder or knowledge, of freshness or jadedness. Thanks to these varying levels of experience, we can be given information in Damaya’s POV, and then Essun can act upon it without having to explain it, sparing more experienced characters the job of exposition, and streamlining the learning process for the reader.
It’s hard to create three character arcs with a satisfying end, and the fact that some arcs fall flat is often the problem with a story with multiple POVs. But Jemisin avoids this problem by having all POVs belonging to the same character. That Damaya’s arc doesn’t properly end, as such, doesn’t matter, because we learn she’s Syenite, and that’s revelation enough. Syenite has a climax in her own timeline. Essun doesn’t quite get a climax, but she does get an epilogue of sorts, which brings together all the threads we’ve seen, preparing us for Book 2 of the trilogy, the next part of the story. So each character serves the structure of the novel, without each needing their own arc to be complete, as they complete each other.
Still, there are pitfalls. Multiple POVs can be off-putting for the reader, especially at the start. We want to follow one character, but get thrown into another one’s story, when we might be more engaged with the first person. I actually liked the novel a lot more once I realised all three characters were the same person – before that, I was a bit annoyed that I kept being pulled away from Essun, whom I cared most about, to be shown these two other women I was less invested in.
Another problem The Fifth Season suffers from is that, although she says she’s had many lives and as many personalities, it still sometimes jars when Damaya/Syenite/Essun feel like three different people. It stretches believability.
Finally, the three POVs sometimes undermine each other.
Essun is grieving her lost family. Without spoiling too much, Syenite loses her family, which is traumatic for her and the reader – but it isn’t the family Essun is mourning. For me, that took a lot of the power out of Syenite’s loss, and of Essun’s grief. Clearly Essun got over Syenite’s trauma, so why shouldn’t we, as readers, do the same? And Essun’s loss, which happened off -page, doesn’t hit as hard as Syenite’s, now that we have both to compete in our minds.
Overall, I think Jemisin pulls off a difficult structure and literary trick. The Fifth Season is at its best when all three timelines work together, completing each other. But it is hard to prevent them from distracting from each other, and undermining each other’s emotional arcs.
The Fifth Season has a lot more to it – great worldbuilding, a very original magic system, vivid landscapes, a biting punch-like prose. So if only for the structure, or if not, for everything else’s sake, it’s worth a read!
27 Nov. 22