In which a N.K. Jemisin novel is awesome. Again.
Title: The Fifth Season
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publication Date: August 4 2015
Hardcover: 449 Pages
This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
Stand alone or series: First in the Broken Earth trilogy
How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
You’d think you would be used by now to N.K. Jemisin’s consistent brilliance given how good every single one of her books are, but here we are once again, the book read, the story closed, your mind: Officially. Blown.
Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.
In a world where apocalypses are a dime a dozen (although the last apocalypse took place a while ago and from its ashes the powerful Sanze empire has grown), across a continent ironically known as the Stillness (its geology anything but static), where the remains of ancient deadcivs litter the landscape (and the skies: remember the floating obelisks), a caste of oppressed people known as Orogenes is the one thing staving off the next geological cataclysm. Until they aren’t.
In a small town away from the capital, a woman’s world ends when she finds her son’s broken dead body. The boy was beaten to death by his father (her husband), who then took her daughter away. The boy and the girl are Orogenes like her. It is possible that her husband found out what they are and reacted as most people would: in fear and in hatred. It doesn’t matter why. She will find him and when she does, she will kill him.
Meanwhile, all the way up North, in the capital, a powerful man feels deep into the earth, sessing its power, reaching into it rock and stone, and pulling at the seams that keep the world together.
And then he breaks it.
That’s when the stone eater comes.
This time, it really is the end of the world.
The ending of one story is just the beginning of another.
The first in a multi-post-apocalyptic Fantasy trilogy, The Fifth Season is a triumphant, layered novel of broken worlds, ever changing geology, shifting power and people’s evolution (and revolution) and of revenge. Within the context of N.K. Jemisin’s own oeuvre it reminded of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the most in terms of narrative structure (although not quite with the same narrative unreliability) and thematic content in reference to the powered-yet-oppressed people. It’s entirely its own thing though: a dark (yet somehow funny in parts) novel that never shies away from disclosing the oppression and violence of an empire that systematises the subjugation of a group of people for their own use. It doesn’t shy away from taking a close look at how that works in the macro and the microcosms, from the internalised self-hatred within a personal scope to the ways that the system maintains itself and the horrors that it’s capable of engineering. I am talking about the Sanze empire and the Orogenes, the people who are capable of taping in the earth to use its power 1. In a land that is never still, where the tectonic plaques and the volcanoes are always moving and exploding to cataclysmic effect, the Orogenes are essential to keep the Stillness as it is: without these people the empire would not have survived so long.
Expertly exploring imperialism and history and the way that the former – as always – writes the latter, this is also a novel of history learned, history taught, history internalised, history decreed, history twisted and eventually about breaking away from that cycle and writing your own history.
The emotional core of all this though lies with the characters – who are all from the oppressed caste – and the viewpoint narratives following three different timelines. One – Essun’s – is the aforementioned woman whose family is living through a tragedy in the present. Some thirty years before, a young girl named Damaya is found to be an Orogene and brought to live in the Fulcrum, to learn about her abilities and to be shaped as a weapon to be used and abused by the empire. She learns what (not who) she is there. A few years after that, Syen is given a mission and a new mentor, Alabaster. They are to visit a different town to fix a problem. They also must make try to make a baby – as two Fulcrum Orogenes, they must breed to order. Their child has the potential to be one of the most powerful Orogenes that the empire has ever known. They comply against their own personal wishes because that’s what they do. Although Alabaster shows signs of displeasure, anger and worst of all… questioning.
Agency and identity; romance, routine and fully lived lives – as well as violence, tragedy and persecution – are present here. There is also, and I can’t stress this enough, that amazing thing where superpowered people can stop earthquakes, control volcanoes, cause tsunamis and freeze people on the spot. Geology was never this awesome.
One woman learns something in one timeline, another lives through it. One of the narratives, the most impacting, affecting and exciting one, is in second person. History unfolds as the narratives beautifully fold into one another. The ending of one story is just the beginning of another as the narrative tells us at the start. The ending of this book is just the beginning of a much larger story, one I can’t wait to follow through to its own conclusion.
No doubt The Fifth Season will be present when the time comes to pick my top books of the year. NO DOUBT.
Here is the Stillness, which is not still even on a good day.
The people of the Stillness–the great, shaking, trembling continent that exists as though it is the only land in the universe. The people of the Stillness are prepared for the worst–but they have no idea quite how bad things can truly get.
This is the end.
The people of the Stillness live in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. They’ve built walls and dug wells and put away food, and they can easily last five, ten, even twenty-five years in a world without sun.
Eventually meaning in this case in a few thousand years.
Look, the ash clouds are spreading already.
Really, this time it is the end. Of all things. It has been broken, the Stillness and all of its tremulous, quivering noise has been made silent.
This is the end.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin spins the history of The Stillness and its people, through different perspectives, times, and narratives. (Of course, those narratives alternate and intersect in an unexpected way–no spoilers, though, I promise.)
As Ana says, these narratives and characters are the emotional core of the book, as we are introduced to a distraught mother who learns that her husband killed one of her children and has taken the other; a woman who is a four-ring rogga, who believes in the power of the Fulcrum and the system of Orogenes that keep the Stillness safe but who soon learns through her new mentor that the world is not the thing she thought it to be; a child whose rogga nature is discovered, and who is ostracized by her family and taken away to study self-control (or be dealt with in the way that the Fulcrum and Guardians deal with unweildy Orogenes).
Throughout these alternating, temporally disjointed narratives, we learn more of this apocalyptic world. And we see, bit by bit, just how rigid, oppressive, and utterly shitty it can be. By that same token, we see how the ideas of community can be potent motivators, and how fear and misplaced frustration can cause so much harm.
This concept is most apparent in the superhumans who can control and tap into life, the powers of the Earth, and quell or amplify every fault or fissure into an earthquake, a volcano, a tsunami–channeling kinetic energy into deep frost, or explosive rage. These superhumans are Orogenes (roggas, in the less pleasant, derogatory parlace of regular humans); they are ostracized when they are discovered as children born of regular humans; they have every facet of their life (including with whom and how frequently they have sex for procreation purposes) controlled when they are under the Fulcrum’s watch.
The Fifth Season is a post-/apocalyptic novel, and to its credit, it is different than many other post-/apocalyptic novels you may have read–in its narrative, especially, the book distinguishes itself forcefully from the fray.
I loved this book very much–I don’t think it has the same sweeping epic scope or utter mindblowing-ness of The Killing Moon (which remains my favorite Jemisin novel), but it’s damn close.
Absolutely recommended, for fans of the genre, for readers of great characters, for anyone looking for an immersive, powerful, paradigm-shifting story.
Ana: 10 – And a top 10 of 2015
Thea: 8 – Very, very good, leaning towards a 9 and definitely top 10 material for 2015.
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- If you ever watched Avatar: the Last Airbender, think Earthbenders ↩