Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Published: Orbit (2015)
Series: Book 1 of the Broken Earth
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Locus Fantasy, World Fantasy and Red Tentacle Awards

The Book:

“This is the story of the Stillness, a land that is threatened constantly by seismic activity.  Orogenes have the power to control the quaking of the earth, and their lives and abilities are strictly controlled by the organization known as the Fulcrum.  Even with their abilities in use, everyone knows it is only a matter of time until the next cataclysm, or ‘fifth season’, rips through the fabric of their civilization.

Within the Stillness, this is the story of three women and of one.  Damaya is a frightened orogene child, whose parents have turned her over to the Fulcrum for training. Syenite is a young woman of the Fulcrum, full of rage at being treated as less than human but determined that nothing will break her.  Finally, Essun is a hidden orogene and mother, who comes home one day to find her husband has murdered their child.  Essun’s life is shattered, but soon hers is not the only one.  The day she discovers the body of her son, a massive seismic event kicks off the next fifth season--which may be the last.” ~Allie

Over the past few years, I have become a big fan of Jemisin’s work.  At this point, the only novel of hers that I have not read is The Obelisk Gate, which I plan to start tonight.  It seems like just about every book I read of hers becomes my new favorite out of her work.

Spoiler warning: I am going to talk about the structure of the book and the identity of the main characters below.

My Thoughts:

The Fifth Season alternates between three storylines that each follow a single heroine. Damaya is a young girl just discovering her orogenic powers and the place society has made for her kind. Syenite is a powerful young woman enslaved by the Fulcrum, unaware of how much is being hidden from her. Essun is a woman who lost everything on the day her husband realized that she and their children were orogenes. I didn’t immediately pick up on how these three storylines and heroines fit together, or even when each story was taking place. I first thought the intention was to show different slices of what life is like as an orogene in this world.  While the three stories do serve this purpose, it eventually becomes clear that each of these stories describes a separate period in the life of the same woman. Taking these three starting points emphasizes how different a person can be from one phase of their life to another, as well as how much our experiences affect who we become.  In the beginning, the three women seemed to have very distinct personalities from one another, but as events unfolded, I began to see the seeds of their future selves.  This three-pronged approach was an engaging way to explore the character of a fascinating heroine.

The stories of Damaya, Syenite and Essun all involve the legal and social treatment of orogenes in the current empire.  Orogenes (derogatively called “roggas”) are widely considered subhuman and dangerous, but also an important resource that must be controlled.  For this reason, they are collected while young into an organization called the Fulcrum, which trains them and indoctrinates them to servitude in all areas of their life.  An order of Guardians oversees the orogenes, keeping them in line by any means necessary. The system reminds me of the treatment of mages in the game Dragon Age, though I feel that The Fifth Season is more willing to follow the premise through to its darker implications. It’s undoubtedly true that orogenic abilities can be dangerous, but I think the story demonstrates that the oppression of orogenes can’t possibly be the best answer to the situation.  Through the heroine’s life, we see the explicit hatred and prejudice she faces, the more subtle jabs, and the quiet rage of living in a society that rejects her personhood.

In addition to a very interesting heroine and story of oppression, The Fifth Season takes place in a highly creative world that is terrifying and full of uncertainty about the future. This is a world that is so used to cataclysms that they have an entire class of lore dedicated to surviving them.  The hints that this lore has been altered over the years for political reasons only makes the world feel more natural.  I feel like there is a rich history to uncover here, and there are plenty of mysteries that I hope we will learn more about in the next two books of the trilogy.  I believe that the three storylines have linked up by the end of this novel, so it will be interesting to see what structure Jemisin will use in The Obelisk Gate. I’ve just acquired the second book, and I’m excited to see what might happen next.

My Rating: 5/5

The Fifth Season is my new favorite of N.K. Jemisin’s novels.  I loved reading about the world, and am looking forward to seeing some of the mysteries of its past revealed.  The heroine was compelling, and I enjoyed seeing the history that lay behind the decisions she made in difficult situations.  I liked the immediacy of reading about three segments of her life in parallel.  The depiction of the oppression of the orogenes was central to the story, and I hope that there is more hope for Essun and those like her in the future of this world.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy!

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