Matt Grant

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Book review: The Fifth Season is a terrifying triumph

“Neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.”
— NK Jemisin, The fifth season
fifth season volcano.jpg

I recently finished the first book in author NK Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Seasonwhich I've been hankering to read ever since hearing about it on my favorite podcast and after it won the 2016 Hugo Award for best novel

Part science fiction, part epic fantasy, The Fifth Season takes place in a terrifying future supercontinent called The Stillness, where the earth is susceptible to frequent violent earthquakes. People have formed tentative communities called "comms," many of which don't last very long unless they are especially fortified and supplied to survive "fifth seasons," which is basically when the dust from a large quake blocks out the sun long enough to create an extended winter. 

It is in one of these small comms that the story begins with Essun, an oregene, discovering that her son has been murdered and her daughter kidnapped by her husband after he found out what she was. Oregenes are born with the capability to manipulate their kinetic energy into the earth in order to either still quakes or cause them. For the latter reason, oregenes are feared by the populace. Either they submit themselves to what is essentially indentured servitude at The Fulcrum, which trains oregenes to only use their powers for good, or they live in hiding, fearful of being hunted down and killed.

How do you kill an oregene? Well, they're still mortal, and there's another caste of people called Guardians who are capable of negating an oregene's power. The story follows three oregenes at different stages of their lives: Essun as she searches for her husband and daughter; Damaya, a young oregene who is sent off to the Fulcrum by her parents; and Syenite, a trained Fulcrum operative sent on a mission with the most powerful oregene, Alabaster Tenring, to a peaceful coastal city in order to help them clear their harbor of rock. What becomes an otherwise routine mission for Syenite soon turns complicated, as there's also the matter of stone eaters, a mysterious race that can move through stone like we move through air, and the obelisks, which hover mysteriously over the Earth for reasons no one knows. 

So: It seems complicated, but like any complicated world, that's only because it is meticulously built. Jemisin clearly did her research on types of rock and geologic formations, and it's small details like the phrases "Evil Earth!" and "Oh, rust!" that really give her apocalyptic world shape. She also manages to accomplish more than a few genuine twists throughout the novel, which makes finishing a very satisfying experience indeed. 

This is truly a speculative fiction book unlike any other I've read; it's a genre mashup but it also delves into issues of slavery, class and colonialism. It was fascinating to think about a race of people who so powerful and yet manage to be subjugated by fear. I actually saw Jemisin read and speak a few months ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and she mentioned that she reads a lot of history and social justice fare, and it's certainly evident in her novel. 

The Fifth Season is the first book in this triology, the second, The Obelisk Gateis also available now. She's still working on the third, so I guess I need to pace myself and not read the second one too soon so I don't have to wait in suspense. 

If you're a fan of science fiction, fantasy, can appreciate the darkness of Game of Thrones but want a little hope mixed in, then check out The Fifth Season!