- Genre: fantasy, science fiction
- Series: The Broken Earth 1
- Pages: 465
- My Rating: 9/10
There’s a lot going on in this book. Jemisin takes you by the hand and sort of gently guides you through a pleasant prologue that introduces us to her new world. But I found myself yelling: wait! What was that? What is happening? I don’t understand! I am being bombarded by strange lands and magical phenomena. We’ll just have to trust her that all will become clear in time.
A couple of things become clear: this is a story about a fantasy land in which people are born on rare occasions with magical powers. In particular, a power over geology. Gifted people called orogenes can call up earthquakes or suck the temperature out of their surroundings. These people are hunted down and killed when they are discovered, because they can be the instigators of many earthquakes, which makes this world a volatile place to live in. For ordinary citizens to survive, they are arranged in a caste system of builders and innovators, and so-called stonelore proscribes what to do in case the ground breaks open.
In epic fantasy tradition, we follow a couple of characters on their journey through these lands. Essun is a gifted mother, who just lost her gifted son, and in grief and rage she leaves her village. Jemisin presents her story in second person, addressing us as if we are the grieving Essun. Always a tricky perspective to use, but Jemisin pulls it off. She has a great authorative and sympathetic writing voice. Second is Damaya, a young girl with the gift who gets taken by a Guardian to be trained as an official magician to safeguard the world. Third is Syenite, a young orogene in training and on a mission.
What a dark, bleak book. We start out with child murder, another child abandoned by her parents, mass killing and forced sex. Ok. But don’t walk away yet, because Jemisin also wrote a highly original, unusual book that breaks with fantasy tradition in many ways. The orogene gift is a fascinating invention and worked out very well, and there are tantalizing hints all over the story that it is set in some sort of post-apocalyptic environment where electricity and asphalt are a thing, along with science fictional elements, even though the tone and presence of magic are distinctly high fantasy.
It wasn’t always easy to sympathize with the characters. One is so stricken by emotional trauma that she totally retreats within herself (which I understand as a reaction to trauma, but as a character to follow it’s not pleasant). Another one feels a constant hatred towards another character that feels undeserved. But the story moves fast and the emotional punches keep coming to draw you in. But it is also Jemisin’s underlying idea or message that it is pain that shapes us. Emotional trauma changes our character over time, and this theme becomes more pronounced the further the story unfolds.
It’s impressive how Jemisin builds up this complex world without explaining too much. The learning curve for the reader is quite steep, and the story is lean. In only 450 pages, which is meagre for epic fantasy, we are immersed into something quite unique. Even though the story is mostly a travelogue, people moving from one place to the next, there are tantalizing hints of a deeper plot playing out. There are a couple of factions, one more mysterious than the other, but The Fifth Season is mostly setting it all up in a slightly meandering way.
The Fifth Season simply has a lot to offer. Jemisin offers a world full of mystery that is envisioned with great care. It’s an eclectic mix of snippets taken from fantasy and science fiction that is somehow congealed into something wholly unique.