Book review: The Fifth Season

Mind. Blown.

I finished the first book in N.K. Jemison’s Hugo-award-winning The Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, and I’m reeling from its sheer awesomeness.

This speculative fiction novel for adults encompasses a vast, immersive, world that resonates with our own culture, particularly the way we treat anyone we deem “other.” The plot is continually stunning; I found myself gasping at twists that somehow both surprise and seem inevitable. Characters are so sharp, clear, and sympathetic, they feel real even when they’re causing earthquakes with their minds.

So let’s back up. Without spoilers, the story is, at first, a little confusing as the world slowly unfolds. It follows three female orogenes, people who manipulate kinetic energy with their minds and bodies.  They can cause or stop earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and other earth- and weather-related catastrophes without trying too hard. Most people in the Stillness do not have this ability, and they fear and hate orogenes, whose ability is illegal, except when controlled by the government.

Essun, a middle-aged mother, has just discovered her three-year-old son has been killed because he was an orogene–which means her secret is out, too. She hunts the child’s killer (and her missing daughter) when an epic catastrophe rips apart the country/continent, beginning a new age (the Fifth Season) in which winter is expected to last for years–or centuries–and martial law rules.

In separate chapters, we also follow Damaya, a young girl whose fearful parents give her away to a Guardian to be trained as an Imperial Orogene. The highly regulated, dystopian culture surrounding her new school/barracks reminded me a little of Katniss Everdeen training for the Hunger Games, a clever girl determined to survive a hostile environment.

The third primary character, Syenite, is a skillful 25-year-old Imperial Orogene with ambitions to rise through the ranks. When she is sent on her first mission with a powerful, but possibly insane, mentor, she grimly does her duty, only to have everything she’s been raised to believe turned upside-down.

So much of these characters’ lives revolve around discovery, both of their individual capabilities and their culture’s dirty secrets. They’re forced to understand and endure terrible truths until they are armed with enough knowledge to glimpse alternatives and to build a better way.

Although children are featured characters, this intense book is intended for adults; scenes of children’s suffering and deaths are particularly hard to read. However, nothing felt superfluous or designed for shock value. If anything, these painful scenarios reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and other books in which mothers and children endure a culture that has dehumanized them–based on true stories.

There’s so much beauty and mystery (I’ll never look at a geode the same), power, magic, and delightful human (and humanoid) characters, I couldn’t put it down. I am anxiously awaiting the rest of the series from the library. Apparently, I’m not the only person in town eagerly devouring the Stillness.

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