The Fifth Season

by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image

Series: The Broken Earth #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 0-316-22930-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 497

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The world of The Fifth Season is one of near-constant seismic activity. Volcanoes, massive earthquakes, and all the catastrophes that follow them are a constant threat. Civilization barely survives the turmoil, and only because of two things: strict cultural rules about how to handle a "fifth season" of heavy seismic activity and its aftermath (called stonelore), and the orogenes.

Orogenes are humans (well, there is some debate about that) who have an organ that others don't, a biological ability to manipulate the seismic activity and the earth itself. They can protect others by damping down activity, smoothing faults, and redirecting seismic shock waves, but they can also destroy: pull earth out of shape, set off quakes, and create paths for magma to surface. And, to gather the power to manipulate the earth, they draw energy from everything around them, including from other people, often fatally. Orogenes are feared and hated by the typical person.

The Stillness, the ironically-named continent on which this book is set, is very old and has had numerous civilizations destroyed by some seismic catastrophe. The landscape is scattered with useless or dangerous remnants of previous forgotten civilizations; the history, likewise, with only the stonelore and some muddled mythology available to most people. The current rulers have kept their empire for a surprising length of time, however, due mostly to the stable ground beneath their centrally-located capital. That stability comes from Fulcrum-trained orogenes, who are taken from their family as children and trained harshly to serve their society by suppressing or fixing dangerous seismic events. Fulcrum orogenes don't have an awful life (well, most of them; for some, it is pure torture), but they're effectively slaves, kept under the watchful eye of Guardians who have mysterious powers of their own.

Against this background, The Fifth Season tells three interwoven stories. Essun lives in a small village (comm) at the start of the book, leading a quiet life, until one of her children is beaten to death by her husband following a seismic event that he thinks the child stopped. He's taken their other child and left. Essun, severely traumatized, heads after him to attempt a rescue, or at least revenge. Damaya is a child from another comm who is sold to the Guardians by her parents when she demonstrates orogenic ability, and who goes through Fulcrum training. And Syenite is a Fulcrum orogene, assigned to a field mission with a difficult but very senior orogene named Alabaster.

All of these stories eventually interweave, and eventually reveal where they fit in the somewhat unobvious chronology of the story, but it takes some time to get there. It also takes some time for the primary characters to have much in the way of agency. Essun starts with the most, once she recovers her senses enough to start her hunt for revenge. Syenite is ambitious but junior, and Damaya is a child, trying to navigate an unknown world of student politics and strict rules. And all three of the main characters are orogenes, rogga when one is being insulting, and this world does not like orogenes. At all.

The Fifth Season starts with an unusual narrative style: a conversational narrator who begins with some of the world background and some mysterious scenes that didn't make sense until much later in the book (late enough that I didn't remember them or make sense of them until I re-read them for this review). The book then focuses on Essun, whose scenes are written in second person present. Normally I think second person feels weirdly intrusive and off-putting, but once I got used to it here, I think it works as well as I've seen it work anywhere. I also see why Jemisin did it: Essun starts the story so traumatized that she's partly disassociating. First person wouldn't have worked, and the second-person voice gives that trauma some immediacy and emotional heft that would have been hard to achieve in third person.

The story starts slowly, and builds slowly, as the world is introduced and Jemisin lays down the texture and history of the world. The world-building is ambitious in tracing down the ramifications of the seismic chaos and the implications of orogene ability (although it's best to think of it as pure magic, despite the minor science fiction trappings). But through that world-building, what this story is building is a deep, powerful, frustrated rage. The Fifth Season is an angry book. It's a book about outcasts, about slaves. About people who, even if they're succeeding within the parameters they're given, are channeled and stymied and controlled. It's a story about smiling, kind paternalism hiding lies, control, and abuse, about how hard it is to find enough space from the smothering destructiveness of a totalitarian culture to let yourself relax. It's a story about the horrible things people are willing to do to those they don't consider fully human, and all the ways in which safety, expediency, tradition, culture, and established social roles conspire to keep people within the box where they belong. And it's a story about how being constantly on edge, constantly dreading the next abuse, breaking under it, and being left wanting to burn the whole world to the ground.

I struggled at the start of this book, but it grew on me, and by about halfway through it had me hooked completely. At first, Syenite's part of the story (the most traditionally told) was my favorite, but the coming-of-age stories of her and Damaya were overtaken by Essun's far more complex, cautious, and battle-weary tale. And I loved Jemisin's world-building. There's a lot of depth here, a lot of things going on that are unexplained but clearly important, and a restraint and maturity in how the world is revealed that makes it feel older and more layered than Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The major drawback of this book is that it is very much the first book of a series, and it doesn't so much have an ending as a hard stop. It's not quite a cliff-hanger, but it's nearly as unsatisfying as one. Most of the major questions of the book — who the stone eaters are and what they want, and the fate of Essun's husband and child, just to name two — are still unresolved at the end of the story. There is a bit of emotional closure, but not a true moment of catharsis for all of the rage. Hopefully that will be coming in a future book.

This is a very unusual story, mixing fantasy and a sort of magic (orogeny) with some science fiction elements and a deep history. It's gritty, textured, emotional, and furious, and very much worth reading. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Followed by The Obelisk Gate.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-07-31

Last modified and spun 2017-08-10