Series: The Broken Earth #1
Published by Orbit on August 4 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Format: Finished paperback
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The nitty-gritty: An intricately woven tale, a dangerous and deadly world, full of wonderfully layered characters and uncommon world-building elements.
I was late to the party, but as the saying goes, “Better late than never!” The Fifth Season has been on my reading list for a while, but because it wasn’t a review book, it got pushed into that “maybe someday” reading pile. Luckily I decided to let my review schedule go this month, and so on a whim I picked up the copy I bought a few months ago. And I loved this book so much that it snuck in at the last minute and made my Top Ten Best of 2015 list! (which goes live tomorrow, so don’t miss it!) This is the first book I’ve read by N.K. Jemisin, and now I’m anxious to catch up with her Inheritance trilogy. The Fifth Season has one of the most unique story structures I’ve ever read, and part of the fun of this book was trying to figure out how all the parts are connected. Luckily I had not encountered any spoilers ahead of time, so I went into this story blind, which is the only way to experience it.
You should prepare yourself for a bit of confusion in the beginning, as Jemisin jumps into the story with very little explanation, and it’s only as the narratives move forward that the world-building begins to make sense. Three main characters bring the story to life as their alternating chapters twist and flow around each other. Essun is a heartbroken mother who has just discovered her son dead on the floor of her house, killed by her husband Jija (the reason for this horrendous murder becomes clear as you get deeper into the story). Her daughter is missing, and Essun suspects he’s taken Nassun away. With nothing left that she cares about, Essun sets off on a harrowing journey to find her daughter and kill her murderous husband.
Damaya is a young girl with a dangerous ability. She’s an orogene, a person who is able to connect with and move rock and earth with simply a thought. Her secret has been discovered, and now a stranger is taking her away from her home to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained to harness and use her powers for the good of the land.
And finally, Syenite is a young woman, a “four ring” orogene who has been given an order to accompany a ten-ringer orogene named Alabaster on his journey. Her main duty is to sleep with him in order to produce an orogene child.
Although the three women are on different paths, they all have one thing in common: the desire to escape the rigors and discipline of the Fulcrum and find freedom in a world where they are feared.
The world-building in The Fifth Season is stunning, although as I mentioned before, Jemisin doesn’t hand you the details on a platter. You’ll need to read a bit and absorb the story before all the pieces come together (although there is a handy glossary in the back of the book that explains many of the unfamiliar names and terms). The “Fifth Season” refers to a time in the world following a natural catastrophic event, like an earthquake, tsunami, or volcanic eruption. Seasons can last years or centuries, depending on how big they are, and each Season has its own peculiarities. Some events cause a rain of ash to fall that may poison hundreds of people, and others devastate food sources (both plant and animal) so that thousands starve to death. Parts of the story take place at the beginning of a Season—after something terrible has happened—and others take place during and after. In other words, this is not a straightforward narrative. But I’ve come to love challenges like this in my reading, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this one, especially when the threads begin to make sense. Jemisin plants small clues along the way, and if you pay attention you’ll probably be able to guess the relationships between Damaya, Syenite and Essun before the end of the story.
I loved the whole idea of the orogenes, gifted (or some say cursed) individuals who can literally move mountains and even control the seas. Their power is such that they are mostly feared and hated, and Jemisin does a great job of showing how dangerous that fear and hatred can be. The book is also populated by fantastical creatures, like the kirkhusa, a dog-like animal that is perfectly placid in peaceful times, but when a Season strikes, it becomes vicious. In addition to the orogenes, who can control the earth, are the stone eaters, beings that look human except that they appear to be made out of stone. I loved the mystery surrounding the stone eaters. Even to the other characters, not much is known about them, but once in a while the author shows one in action and those scenes were quite startling! I hope the stone eaters get lots more time in the next book, because I’m fascinated by everything about them.
Each character is wonderfully strong and multifaceted, even the men—and I say that because I appreciate Jenisin’s ability to go above and beyond simply filling her story with strong women. Essun is motivated by the love of her children, and she is solely focused on finding her daughter. In Syenite’s storyline, we discover another big mystery in the book, the obelisks, large oblong metal structures that float through the sky. I’m very keen on finding out more about them, and because book two in the series is called The Obelisk Gate, I’m expecting much will be explained. As for the youngest character, Damaya’s story is one of changes. I loved her curiosity and willingness to break the rules, once she discovers some very big secrets at Yumenes, where she is being trained to control her abilities.
It took me over a week to finish The Fifth Season, but not because it was slow or tedious. I simply wanted to savor the language and spend more time with these amazing characters. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially for fans of fantasy stories with layer upon layer of intricate world-building. Do yourself a favor and read this book before the sequel comes out next summer. You’re welcome:-D