LitStack Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

by Sharon Browning

The Fifth SeasonThe Fifth Season
The Broken Earth:  Book One
N. K. Jemisin
Orbit Books
Release Date:  August 4, 2015
ISBN 978-0-316-22929-6

There is a reason that N. K. Jemisin is becoming known as one of the best worldbuilders in modern speculative fiction.  She’s good.  She’s really good.  But worldbuillding is just one aspect of a well crafted and compelling novel.  Characterization, tone, story, pacing – they all play a part.

Ms. Jemisin’s newest novel -the opening volley of her newest series – excels in all of these.  But the foundation of the story, the world, the worldbuilding… well, it’s just sublime.

The time is the far future of Earth.  Civilization, and indeed the world itself, is much different from what we now know.  For the most part, humanity is tribal; not unsophisticated but also not contingent on digital technology.  Humanity’s attention has moved from the stars to the earth itself, for it is the ground under their feet on which life hinges.

Green, nurturing Mother Earth has been forgotten with the rise of an angry, resentful Father Earth.  Stonelore is not only the myth and fable, but the basis of the law of the land, both physical and moral.  The land itself is in constant turmoil, with quakes, eruptions, tsunamis and other seismic activities.  The four seasons still pass in their constant cycle but there are times when a cataclysm arises, spewing out not just molten rock but ash and gas that will fester and turn the sky dark, killing off plant life and starving the animals.  A harsh, morbid winter will follow lasting for years, decades, even longer, with no sun and no growth; many will die.  Most will die.  These cataclysms have been labeled “fifth seasons”.  There have been seven documented fifth seasons in recorded history, and five others fabled to have come before.  None were or could be predicted; each was sudden, each was different, each was catastrophic.

The Fifth Season opens at the start of an “event” that may precede one of these feared winters.  The patchwork narrative consists of three story lines:  Essun, a middle aged woman galvanized by the loss of her family; Damaya, a young girl of specific talents taken from her family to be honed with the Fulcrum in Yumenes, the largest, most magnificent city in the world; and Syenite, a young woman on her way to becoming a highly trained and ambitious Fulcrum agent.  All three are orogenes, those who can sense and affect movements in the earth.  (Technically, orogeny  is the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.)  It is both a talent and a curse, for an orogene who cannot control their power is a danger to all.

Every time the earth moves, you will hear its call.  In every moment of danger you will reach, instinctively, for the nearest source of warmth and movement.  The ability to do this is, to you, as fists are to a strong man.  When a threat is imminent, of course you’ll do what you must to protect yourself.  And when you do, people will die.

Orogenes are both marveled at and feared.  Many live in secret, denying their abilities, for only Fulcrum trained orogenes are legal and escape the threat of death; children who manifest as orogenes are often killed by their own families.  Even Fulcrum trained orogenes operate under strict organizational rules and with the close supervision from the mysterious and powerful Guardian order.

Yet even in this world, those with power often seek control or become pawns.

In this complex yet beautifully coherent world that Ms. Jemisin has created, it is the unfolding of knowledge and awareness that is the most potent and heart-breaking.  Whether it be a young girl trying to understand what the fates have made her, a self-assured young woman thrown so far outside her comfort zone that she must rethink all that has been drilled into her, or a hardened woman who despite her best efforts is unable to put her past behind her, each one of the heroines in The Fifth Season gives us a glimpse into a world that is so unlike our own and yet so very familiar, for better or worse.

After reading The Fifth Season, it is easy to see why Ms. Jemisin is being called “one of the most celebrated new voices in epic fantasy.”  This volume could certainly stand on its own, but I’ll be excited to see where she continues to take us in the books to come.

~ Sharon Browning

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