Published by: Orbit
Where I got the book: Originally from the public library, then I broke down and bought my own copy
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This review was originally written for The Charlatan. A condensed version was published on July 28, 2016, Volume 46, Issue 3.
The world has already ended by the start of N.K. Jemisin’s latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. It is a compelling story of the struggle after the end of civilization but also about the events that brought everything to this point in the first place.
There is little surprise that this book was nominated for best novel for the Hugo Awards (2016), and Nebula Awards (2015), as well as the Locus Award for best fantasy novel (2015). The Fifth Season is a brilliantly crafted novel with strong world-building, gorgeous description and unique usage of different character points of view. Jemisin has created a compelling, yet twisted fantasy world that asks readers to question the nature of oppression. Who is oppressing whom, to what extent, for which reasons and what do they gain?
The story takes place in a land called The Stillness, a supercontinent that’s ironically named due to the constant tremors and seismic waves that people shape their lives around surviving. Civilizations are built on top of each other, eradicating or ignoring those which did not survive and lead its citizens to death. Stonelore, rules once carved in stone that dictate the terms of survival, are followed faithfully in preparation for a fifth season, an era of catastrophic climate change that could occur at any time. The empire Sanze prevailed though, bringing innovation and peace as they built upon the ashes of dead civilizations, the lands of those they conquered, and the bodies of enslaved orogenes, people gifted with powers to control geological forces. And then one day, Sanze, the beautiful, innovative and powerful empire that outlasted so many others by thousands of years, suddenly ends without warning with the arrival of a fifth season.
This is also a story of the end of life as we know it, not just the inanimate things that make up civilization, such as architecture, knowledge, and trade, but a story of people and the rendering that comes with death and the inability to continue on living. The Fifth Season is told through three narratives of orogene women in different time periods; the child Dayama who is feared for her powers and taken from her home to serve her empire, the young woman Syenite who is trying to politically advance her career and discovers the dark truth about her work when she is begrudgingly sent to complete a mission, and Essun while trying to live peacefully in hiding comes home to discover that her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Through these three stories Jemisin weaves together the narrative of how the world ended, how Sanze as a society got to the point of destruction and how to survive the aftermath.
As a fan of Jemisin’s previous works, the Inheritance Trilogy and the Dreamblood Duology, The Fifth Season is an incredible turning point in her career as an author. The Fifth Season is the book where Jemisin has been able to take all the skills, experience and knowledge she learned while writing her previous series and craft it into a book that exceeded my expectations. Jemisin has grown as a world-builder, something I felt that fell slightly short in the Inheritance trilogy, managing to flesh out the blood, skin and bones of The Stillness and leaving no questions unanswered.
I’ve always considered Jemisin’s characterization one of her best strengths as a writer and The Fifth Season does not disappoint. Dayama, Syenite and Essun are all well crafted characters that draw you in and stick with you long after you’ve finished the book. Essun’s point of view is also notable because it is a clear departure from commonly used points of view in fantasy writing. Instead of using third person, as used in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or first person, as used in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Jemisin uses second person in Essun’s narrative. Through the use of the pronoun you, the line between reader and character blurs, and I found myself identifying more with Essun to the point of becoming her. It’s a testament to the strength of Jemisin’s writing that’s she’s able to craft such a strong world with such compelling characters, while playing with genre conventions.