Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Book 1 of The Broken Earth
Publisher: Orbit (August 4, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
This book had the distinction of being on both my most anticipated SFF lists for 2014 and 2015, due to the publisher’s decision to push its release date back a year in order to give N.K. Jemisin more time to work on the sequels. So it was with no small amount of excitement when an advance copy finally made it into my hands. Proof that it was really happening.
And oh boy, was it TOTALLY worth the wait.
Initially though, my feelings were mixed after the first few chapters. There was that cryptic prologue, with its smattering of information about the world (then right away saying that none of these places or people I just read about actually matter – wait, what?) as well as the curious narrative style, including one character whose chapters were written entirely in the second person. That choice eventually makes sense, by the way, but at first I really wasn’t sure what to make of the book.
But then gradually, everything started to come together. I watched as connections were made, questions were answered, and blank spaces were filled in. The final result was this unique and wholly imaginative novel that delighting me to no end. The world-building elements which so confounded me at the beginning of the book eventually became clear, and I came to recognize the sheer ingenuity behind it.
The Fifth Season takes place on a continent known as The Stillness, ironically named given the instability of its geology and tectonics. The world would have fallen to pieces many times over if not for the Orogenes, a group of people with the powers to manipulate earth energies and shape the land. In reality though, The Stillness has actually gone through multiple apocalyptic events called “Seasons”, each one characterized by its specific end-of-the-world effects. It’s the norm for this world, but Orogenes do what they can to make it better, preventing many earthquakes or volcanic eruptions by catching anomalies in time before they can cause widespread destruction.
Yet for all that they do for humanity, Orogenes are feared, shunned and subjected to hostility and violent treatment. Their powers can be as unstable and catastrophic as the disasters they try to prevent, especially if the individual cannot learn control. Orogeny is also unpredictable. There’s a genetic predisposition for it, though theoretically anyone can be born an Orogene, so children discovered with the trait are immediately taken away for harsh and rigid training. However, there are also the unfortunate ones that don’t even make it that far before they’re murdered by their scared or panicky neighbors – or even by their own parents.
Essun experienced this in the worst way possible, coming home one day to find the lifeless body of her young son, beaten to death by her husband. An Orogene in hiding, Essun realizes with grief and horror what must have caused the father to kill the boy. Now Essun fears for the life of her daughter whom her husband has kidnapped, and she is determined to go after them. This is her story, a heartbreaking and beautifully written narrative of a woman’s journey taken upon for love and revenge. Jemisin may have created a world here full of mind-blowingly fantastical elements, but she hasn’t left us wanting in the character department either, giving us an emotionally raw, very human tale.
I have to say the characters are truly wonderful. The Fifth Season follows three perspectives: Essun, a rogue Orogene whose only quest now is to get her daughter back; little Damaya, taken away by an Orogene handler called a Guardian to Yumenes where she will be trained to control her powers; and Syenite, a young woman paired with a more experienced mentor in order to learn from him and breed with him, ensuring that the next generation will have talented Orogenes to keep The Stillness safe. All three threads are so engaging and poignantly detailed, each one giving the reader a distinct reason to care about these strong yet conflicted characters. It was also wonderful to see the bigger picture they formed in the end.
Finally, I have a confession to make. While this is my first Jemisin novel, years ago I actually started to read A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms around the time it came out, but for whatever reason I put it down and didn’t get a chance to pick it up again. I have every intention of going back to the book one of these days, but for obvious reasons I didn’t count it as being “read”. I did, however, feel like I got enough to get a feel for her writing, and now reading The Fifth Season in 2015, I can see how far her skill has come since her debut. With such rich world-building, relatable characters and compelling storytelling, I just knew I had to see all that through to the end, and the conclusion was a real surprise, both marvelous and disquieting.
I’m so glad I read this. The Fifth Season is the first novel of The Broken Earth trilogy, and it’s a strong introduction to a brand new world featuring some very fascinating, very special characters. Highly recommended. It’s definitely not going to be an easy wait for the next book.