The Fifth Season is the first volume of a new world-building series called The Broken Earth from N K Jemisin, a US sf and fantasy author, often on the big sf book prize shortlists, who recently made headlines for successfully achieving full Patreon funding to allow her to give up the day job and concentrate on writing for a year. Patreon is a bit like Kickstarter, asking for pledges to make a regular donation to give someone an income for a limited time, rather than a one-off payment. Jemisin’s ability to rally her fans to show their support for her work with pledges of cash advances is seriously impressive. So is her writing.
The Fifth Season is a stupendous novel (it won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel) but I have to navigate around the spoilers to describe it, since it’s the kind of story that contains a massive reveal at the end that will send you back to read it all over again. I’ll start with a question: is this novel sf or fantasy? Jemisin is marketed by Orbit / Hachette as a fantasy novelist, and her earlier works appear to sit firmly in that category. But The Fifth Season is based on science – on an invented world in an unknown time – that could happen, and so ought really to be thought of as sf. Nothing in the novel is outside the laws of physics, if you accept that humans could have the potential to develop telekinesis and teleportation. There are no magical creatures or supernatural mystical missions. The plot also has a democratic setting. Obviously social hierarchies exist, but the story (so far in the series) is not about a humble or outcast person who finds to their amazement that they’re the lost princess of X or the missing warlock of Y with a mission to regain their lost crown / spell / kingdom. That kind of fairy-tale plot bores me, but I love the story in The Fifth Season, where anyone can affect the future and create change.
This world has cities built by civilisations structured around a pre-industrial medievalised caste system, in different cultures created by different peoples (skin colour, social practices, technologies). Among these move people born with the ability to direct and control geological forces: the orogenes. They are feared for the power they can use, and because they’re not-like-us different: the peoples without their powers call them roggas. I think we can see something familiar here: denigrate the group by diminishing their name and make it an insult. The orogenes have to live apart, and keep incognito, controlled by Guardians. Even more feared and even more secret are a non-human race who can move through the rock of the earth itself. No-one controls them, and not many people know that they exist. They are terrifying as well as fascinating.
The world is geologically unstable, so earthquakes and tsunamis are constant threats. A new Season begins after a particularly violent geological event when the tectonic plates rip the land apart and new continents try to form, which is when the orogenes are very, very important for human survival. The story follows three characters struggling to survive in a time of tectonic and geothermal disturbance that may or may not be caused by natural forces: the Fifth Season. Village worker Essun’s baby son has been killed by her husband because he was exhibiting orogenic signs, and he’s run off with their daughter. Damaya is taken from her family by a Guardian looking for new orogene children, and brought to begin her indoctrination at the Fulcrum’s training grounds. Orogene-in-training Syenite has been assigned to a mission with a crazy high-level orogene, that brings her in contact with one of the planet’s rhomboid shapes of mineral hanging in the sky, that are so familiar and so inactive and unreachable that they are always ignored. Their mission is to clear away the obstruction in a harbour bottom, but when Syenite finds an unknown rhomboid buried in the harbour silt, she unleashes a new influence in the world which the Guardians, in particular, are very anxious to control.
The story is told through these three individuals’ lives and what their actions precipitate, and their histories of loss and love reveal the politics and backstory of the world that Jemisin has built. Her understanding of reader psychology is powerful, since she has constructed a plot that needs extreme discretion, yet she reveals information in exact and perfectly judged quantities to keep us reading, in suspense until the end. Her imagination is huge, and her storytelling technique is superb. The novel’s theme is power and how to control it: from gigantic convulsions under the earth’s surface, to a tense conversation in a room containing three people and a contract. Small but powerful details give Jemisin’s world its individuality: the barely-discussed social hierarchies of caste, and the casual embrace of sexuality on multiple points on the continuum. It is a marvellous beginning to a series that I am extremely keen to continue reading.
I review the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, here.