HOLY SHIT you guys! Before I get into the details, let me shout at you that THIS WAS THE BEST DAMN BOOK I’VE READ IN A LONG TIME. It’s twisty and full of depth and it’s got diverse characters doing awesome shit and living through hell and still going on and also that world is a messed up place and I loved every page of it. Okay, time to take a breath and do that all over, with punctuation.
THE FIFTH SEASON
by N. K. Jemisin
Published by: Orbit, 2015
Ebook: 500 pages
Series: The Broken Earth #1
My rating: 9,5/10
First sentence: Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?
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 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.
Where to start with a book like this? There are three protagonists whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. One of these character’s stories is told entirely in second person and that works beautifully – it took me half to book to even notice it. Essun, who has found her little son dead, killed by her own husband, and her older daughter kidnapped by the same, sets out to hunt them down. Save her child, kill her husband. Working through her grief and dealing with a just-begun Season, it’s not exactly fun to read about her, but my god, is it riveting! Essun is also an orogene in hiding, a person who can feel – sess – and manipulate the earth and its heat, a talent that is used for stopping earthquakes in this hostile world.
The second protagonist is Damaya, a little girl with the gift of orogeny, who is taken to the Fulcrum, a sort of school for orogenes. Although this school is also a prison, and while orogenes (or roggas, the derogatory term) are trained to use their power without hurting others, they are also slaves to the Sanze Empire, doing their bidding and always watched by their Guardians. I loved how some of Damaya’s story read like a dystopian boarding school tale, a departure from the otherwise completely bleak world. Don’t get me wrong, Damaya’s life isn’t fun either, but I enjoyed the shift in tone, and it shows off Jemisin’s amazing skill all the more.
The third, and my favorite, character to follow, was Syenite. She is Fulcrum-trained and has earned four rings in their ranking system. She is sent out with Alabaster to do an orogene’s job and also to breed, in order to produce a highly skilled new orogene baby for the Fulcrum to train. You see, while orogenes at the Fulcrum aren’t hunted down and killed, they are still a far cry from free. Syenite and Alabaster’s relationship was a pure joy to watch. Syen is a stubborn, incredibly likable character. Her ambition, her hunger for more, her dislike of ten-ringer Alabaster and the fact that they have to have sex without really wanting to – every little bit about her made me love her.
Since I’m keeping this spoiler-free, instead of going on about the plot (which is amazeballs!), let me talk a little about the world-building. Which, if possible, is even more amazeballs. I seriously don’t think I’ve read anything this original and internally consistent in a long time. There are plot twists (all of which caught me by surprise and made me shout WHAT THE FUUUUUCK), but even without them, exploring this strange world managed to have me sitting there with my mouth open, trying to wrap my brain around all this.
The Stillness is a big continent and the fact that its population ise used to Seasons – people have go-bags for when the shit hits the fan again – tells you that it’s a fairly unpleasant place to live. Orogenes are, in my mind, magic-users or X-Men or whatever, but instead of being revered or celebrated as superheroes, they are treated as lower class citizens or even less, especially when untrained. But then there are also the obelisks, hexagonal gigantic shapes just floating around. Nobody knows their use or why they’re here. Apart from the actual geographic and tectonic set-up of this strange world, I also found its people highly intriguing. There is a clear class-divide, with orogenes being seen as less valuable than stills (people without orogeny), but even among the stills, there are rich people and poor people. And even within orogenes, there is a pecking order. Let’s not forget the Guardians, which, to me, are like a species of their own with their own set of powers…
I could go on and on about this world and my theories about it, but I really, really don’t want to spoil a single thing for you guys. Something I can say is that, although the three main characters’ story lines are very different, there are clues in one story for mysteries in another. You could read each tale on its own and still get a great story out of it, but putting the puzzle pieces together, they create a bigger whole. It gives you these little moments of “Ha, so that’s how that works” when you remember something from a previous chapter that fits into what the current character is going through. This also means that The Fifth Season is a book that demands concentration. It’s not a book to read on your commute or in noisy rooms.
I have said many things but I haven’t even mentioned the relationships yet. Not only are there moments of pure beauty between groups of people, there is love in so many facets, despite the bleak world with its many apocalypses. Whether it’s the love between sexual partners, between the people of an entire village, between fellow travelers on the road, between a child and their mother… Jemisin manages to show that even a world as broken as this still has a place for the personal, for enjoyment and sex. Without spoiling, Syen is part of one of the best relationships I have ever read about where the partners complement and challenge each other, arouse and hold each other, push one another to become better people. It’s a thing of beauty.
And, just to round things up, I’d like to say a few words about the prose. Jemisin has been brilliant from the start. Her Inheritance Trilogy already showed that we have a truly original author here, one who defies all the fantasy tropes and comes up with new stuff. In my opinion, she has also always been a fantastic writer, craft-wise. But in The Fifth Season, she truly comes into her own. The tonal shifts between chapters, the way descriptions differ depending on whose point of view we’re reading, the clever tricks she plays on her readers – all of this shows that even great authors still have room to grow and Jemisin did. The Fifth Season is proof of that.
To be honest, many questions are left unanswered at the end of The Fifth Season but if anything, this made me even more eager to read the next book. This volume is so dense and so full of details that putting any more plot or world-building into it would have been a mistake. As it is, it is an absolutely perfect book with mind-blowing twists and brain-wrecking ideas. I urge everyone to grab a copy and take a week off work. This book deserves to be devoured and enjoyed, soaked up and savoured. It also deserves all the awards!
MY RATING: 9,5/10 – Oh my god, so perfect!
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