The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: August 4th, 2015
N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season recently won the 2016 Hugo Awards, one the premiere awards given to science fiction and fantasy novels. It was up against some impressive contenders, including Jim Butcher's The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, and Uprooted by Naomi Novik (which will be reviewed here later this year). There is a lot I could say about this book and how it pertains to the larger sphere of speculative fiction. But that's not why I'm here right now. Because today all I want to talk about is the utter joy that is The Fifth Season.
Maybe "joy" isn't the best word. This is not a happy book. This is the book about an apocalypse. The world of The Fifth Season is about to suffer a cataclysm that will probably usher in a new extinction-level event, and that's how the book opens. The story's narrative is then split between three characters, all women who share one distinct trait: they are orogenes, people who can control and manipulate the earth around them. The first is Essun, an older woman and mother who finds one of her children murdered and begins her journey to find the killer while the world is falling apart around her. One of the many interesting aspects of Essun's point of view is that it is in the second person. How many books do you know that use the second person? It sharply contrasts with the third person points of view of Damaya, a child who is taken from her home to learn how to train her powers, and Syenite, a younger woman trained in her powers who is sent on a mission with the most powerful orogene in the world.
In the world of The Fifth Season, being an orogene is incredibly dangerous. Calling forth the energy around them can instantly kill those in their vicinity if they're not careful. As such, they're feared by society, even though they help quell the frequent earthquakes that plague the world. Every few hundred years or so, a "fifth season" emerges from these quakes, usually accompanied by a natural disaster that comes to define the time period. As a result, society has fetishized safety, and their communities are built with a set hierarchy based on their usefulness during a disaster.
I'm trying very hard to be coy about the characters and plot, because this book has a lot of twists and it deserves to be revealed in the way the author wrote it. Frankly, I don't want to ruin any of the surprises. Most of the information we're given comes at an even pace; an odd word or phrase we don't know in one chapter is usually explained in the following one. This is a story that has everything many modern fantasy fans crave: creative world building, an interesting magic system, a world not centered in traditional "medieval" fantasy, and most importantly, fleshed out and intriguing characters. This is not a story about a dying earth. This is a story about people.
One of the main arguments that criticizes the Hugo Awards is that the so-called gatekeepers of fantasy and science fiction ignore popular books in favor of stories that have "messaging"; political or social messages that these critics personally disagree with. I'm not going to waste time going over the merit of this argument, but I will say this: The Fifth Season is chock full of "messaging," and it's subtle enough that you can choose to ignore it if you wish. But it hits on everything: racism, sexism, sexual and gender fluidity, the concept of community, exploitation, authority, environmentalism, trust, love, friendship, parenting... these add to the story and flesh out the world, not detract from it. Even the world's obsession with safety from earthquakes can compare to our society's obsession with security in general: what have we given up to ensure "safety" from terrorism? Let's say for a moment you don't care about any of that. That's fine. Because the most important thing about this book is that I couldn't. Put. It. Down. Because it's that good. I'm all for reading pulp that does nothing more than provide entertainment and escapism, but The Fifth Season is not a bag of sweets you gorge yourself on when you want comfort food. It's a sumptuous meal that is delicious and filling and doesn't make you feel bad for indulging.
The Fifth Season is the first in a trilogy called The Broken Earth. The second part, The Obelisk Gate, was released this past August and I will be reading it. I highly recommend this book, and encourage any serious fantasy lovers and book lovers in general to check it out.