“The Broken Earth” trilogy has been on my radar for the past couple of years. I’m a huge fan of N.K. Jemisin, after reading her short story “The City Born Great” in 2017’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and then moving on to the “Dreamblood Duology” omnibus. When I think of authors I admire and strive to emulate, Jemisin is probably at the top of my list mostly because I am in awe of her world-building skills. As I mentioned in my January recap post, I was taking a class on the “The Broken Earth” trilogy this month and I’m enjoying it a lot! This entire series is packed with scenes, characters and dialogue to sift through. Though it’s not dense, unlike “The Three-Body Problem” (which I plan to finish soon, likely in March.) But I don’t want to discuss this series as a whole until I review the final book. Until then, I’ll do my best to focus on the individual books.
So let’s look at The Fifth Season!
The story is set on the Stillness, a singular continent on Earth (that may or may not be OUR Earth). The Stillness is a land under constant threat from cataclysmic earthquakes and to survive humanity is forced to live in communities (also known as comms) to survive during a Season, a lengthy period of time where the Earth violently turns against humanity. Living in this world are individuals known as orogenes, who have the ability to manipulate the earth. (I’m not an Avatar: The Last Airbender expert, but in a lot of ways, I imagined as orogenes as earth-benders.) The Fifth Season follows three characters, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, as they travel through the Stillness in what appears to be the end of days as the continent faces the worst Season yet. As the three characters move through the world, we learn more about the continent, Seasons, the government, mistreatment of orogenes and come across mysteries that won’t be addressed until later in the series.
I mentioned before, but Jemisin is a master at world-building. Everything about the Stillness seems to make sense, even if it doesn’t exist in our world. And I’m not just talking about the magic and orogeny in the story. I’m talking about the political and social structure of this world. In the Stillness, it’s all about survival and in order to survive, hard decisions have to be made which sometimes require sacrificing people for the “greater good.” Within comms, people are placed in different use-castes: Breeders, Innovators, Resistant, Strongback, and Leadership. During a season, people must make themselves as useful as possible within a comm or risk being kicked out. It’s brutal and heart wrenching, but as you read, you begin to understand why this world has such a system in place. But this brutality extends to other sectors of this world, a la, the mistreatment of Orogenes. The Orogenes are dehumanized and feared. They wield such tremendous pseudo-magical abilities and yet they are either killed at young ages or sent to live the rest of their days at the Fulcrum, a school where they can hone their abilities and become “useful.” It’s economical, brutal and sometimes hard to know who deserves your sympathies and/or scorn. And it all exists on a continent that seems no larger than the United States, maybe even smaller. (I should also mention that there is another group of inhabitants on this world known as stone-eaters. But they don’t impact the plot drastically until later in the series. For the first book, they just seem to exist on the peripheries, waiting for something to occur.)
Living in this world are three complex, interesting characters: Damaya, Syenite and Essun. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Damaya has a childish wonder about the world that I admired before it’s quickly snuffed out. Syenite is a skilled and witty orogene who has the misfortune of traveling with and learning from a highly skilled orogene, Alabaster, who exposes her to the harsh truths of the Stillness. And Essun is a mother trying to rescue her daughter from her husband after he brutally murders their young son. Like everyone in the Stillness, these three characters are trying to survive and since they’re all orogenes, they’re trying to do their best to live without causing damage to others around them. I was invested in all of their stories, though I think Essun captivated me the most. For most of the book, she comes across as numb, just trying to get to her daughter and plan from there. It’s such a simple driving motivation and yet, Essun struggles to accomplish her goal. During her journey, she is forced to reveal her orogeny abilities and carries a sense of guilt and shame about it. She tries to travel alone, but picks up stragglers along the way and by the end of the story, we see Essun slowly open herself up, despite the pain she carries in her heart. Honestly, my whole review could focus on these three characters as well as the supporting characters we meet in the story. (Alabaster is another character who deserves a review all to himself. He’s so fascinating!) But I will say, these characters make it really hard to put The Fifth Season down.
In short, this is a must read no matter what genre you usually read. Everyone can find something to like in this book. I finished the final book this past week and I can confidently say that this is one series that will stick with me for years to come. (Having read the whole series, it made it really hard to write this review because it was difficult avoiding spoilers, including a really huge in this book!) Jemisin is a masterful storyteller, luring you in with an imaginative world without shying away from some of the uglier aspects of said world. There are so many adjectives to describe not just this book, but the series as a whole. But I will settle for just one: