I’m kinda tempted to just leave it at that, really. I went into this book almost entirely blind – I knew I loved Jemisin’s work, so of course I was going to read this one, and you bet I was going to stalk Orbit until they started giving away review copies. (Damn but I love being a librarian.) I heard her read the first chapter at WisCon, and I was floored. But I didn’t read anything else about it until I had it in my hands.
In case you require more convincing, here’s the idea: Our story takes place on a world not very much like our own, one with a whole hell of a lot of tectonic activity. Volcanoes, earthquakes, the works. The “fifth season” that the title refers to is what happens when one of those world-changing events gets big enough to actually change the world. Maybe it’s ashfall that plunges the environment into a five-year-long winter. Maybe it’s a massive earthquake that shatters the centers of civilization. Sooner or later, everyone knows, it’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.
Humans on this world have one small line of defense against Father Earth (who, according to legend, hates them so much he’s trying to wipe them out): orogenes, people with a supernatural power over the earth’s movements. Orogenes are highly valuable to the Fulcrum, the wealthy, core-cultural region where most of government happens, but they’re also feared and despised. After all, an angry orogene could wipe out your entire city – hell, your entire region, if they felt like it. Obviously they’re dangerous and need to be controlled. Obviously they need to be manipulated, groomed, subdued, or – failing all that – killed.
Every one of our main characters is an orogene. There’s Essun, who came home three days ago to find her three-year-old son beaten to death by her husband. There’s Damaya, a little girl who just barely escapes being murdered by her own family. There’s Syenite, a young woman and a trained orogene just discovering the true extent of the limits she’s been living under all her life. And there’s all the people who fall in around them: the transwoman who’s studying orogeny in the outlying districts, the orogene so powerful his primary use to the powers that be is being put out to stud, the coastal city governor who can’t or won’t see the danger she’s in, the Guardians who watch the orogenes, the unusual little boy who appears at the end of the world.
This is a book full of people. It’s got great worldbuilding, it’s got great magic, it’s got great politics and a truly outstanding plot woven with incredible skill and fantastic prose – but oh my god, the people. I don’t cry at books often. It usually takes a visual cue to bring real tears to my eyes. I cried reading The Fifth Season. I was at work. I care so, so much about these people, about Damaya and Syenite and Essun, and I hurt for them, and I wanted them to be okay.
They are not okay. This is a hard book to read – I mean, there’s that opening scene, with Essun and her son’s body. You can’t say you weren’t warned. I don’t really think it gets worse from there, but it doesn’t get much better. This is a novel from the point of view of an oppressed minority, and it’s there in every realistic detail, from the broad strokes of the culture at large to the microaggressions of everyday interaction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen oppression rendered so well in fantasy. This is a book with teeth.
Some people are going to be put off by the fact that Essun’s story is told in second person. Yes, it’s stunt writing. Yes, it’s tremendously effective and entirely worth the time it will take you to get into the story and forget about the pronouns. (It took me two pages.) Look, stunt writing is only bad if you can’t pull it off, and Jemisin? Well, I’m starting to believe that she can do anything.
I read this book two months ago, starting the second I got the download from the publisher. I’m going to my local indie to buy a paper copy this weekend, and I’m going to read it again. Just writing this post made me long to go back to it, to the people I care about, to the deep, wide, wonderful, terrifying world they live in. The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy, which means there will be more of this world yet to come.
I can’t wait.