The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth)
by N.K. Jemisin
Cover Artist: Arcangel Images
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316229296
Date: 04 August 2015 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
What if you lived in a world where alongside the familiar four seasons, you had to constantly be on guard for the fifth season--decade long winters caused by huge volcanic eruptions that ejected enough ash to block out the sun? This is the basis for N.K. Jemisin's newest trilogy, which Fifth Season begins.
Stonelore serves as a repository of wisdom about how to survive civilization ending disaster, amassed over thousands of years in which vast empires have formed over and over only to be wiped out by volcanic catastrophes. The current Sanze empire has endured for centuries by harnessing the power of the orogenes--people who have the magical ability to control the earth, averting earthquakes and volcanic eruption or causing them. Orogenes are despised and seen as less than human, and the Sanze empire seeks out young orogenes and subjects them to brutal training to turn them into tools of the empire. It is a fascinating setting, and the oppression of the orogenes serves as the narrative engine of a passionate and deeply character driven story.
The story is split into three interlocking segments, each taking place at different times. In the first, and earliest, strand a young girl is discovered to be an orogene, and willingly turned over by her parents to the harsh training of the Sanze, who seek to mold her into an obedient tool. In the second, and middle segment, a young imperial orogene is given two missions--to travel to a distant seaside community to clear a harbor of debris, and on the way to conceive a child with a powerful fellow orogene to breed a new generation of orogenes to serve the empire. In the third, and chronologically latest, strand an older orogene who has been living in hiding in a small community learns that her husband has killed her young son on discovering his burgeoning powers. Just as she begins her hunt for her husband, for revenge and to find her daughter he has abducted, a new and surpassingly deadly fifth season has begun, threatening the human race with extinction.
This interlocking set of stories is perfectly designed to reveal the horrible cost of the dehumanization of the orogenes. In the first story, we see both the brutal training and just as brutal disregard for their humanity that the young orogenes are subject to. In the middle strand, we see the cost of internalizing this training and becoming a tool of those who hate you, trying to retain one's self-respect and discipline in the face of constant hatred and injustice. In the final story, we see an older, more confident woman whose life can still be ripped apart by the hatred of those she loved.
I do have a few minor complaints about the novel. I found the prose generally pedestrian. It tends to be at its best when describing the emotions of the characters--Jemisin has a talent of evoking the joys and sorrows of her protagonists. But elsewhere, it drags a bit. I also found Jemisin's made up words somewhat intrusive and flat. For instance, dead civilizations are called deadcivs, and the southern mid latitudes of the continent are refereed to as... the somidlats. These locutions are unfamiliar enough to trip the reader up, but too familiar and pedestrian sounding to evoke the society Jemisin builds.
But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. The plot is fast moving and gripping, switching from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. More importantly, just as with her previous work, Jemisin's characters are incredible. Damaged, scared, imperfect, and yet heroic. You not only root for the protagonists, you come to feel that you know them, and understand their faults and pains. It's an incredible talent, and Jemisin uses it to fantastic effect here.
I can't wait for the next volume in the trilogy, and highly recommend this novel to fantasy fans everywhere.