I was amazed at how much dust had accumulated on my copy of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the first in her Broken Earth Trilogy. I had purchased the book prior to its winning the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel after reading a few rave reviews. And then it sat, and judging from the dust, undisturbed. Having just purchased the first of the two sequels, The I felt it was time to read the first in the series.
Boy was I glad I did. I often find that books do not match the hype, and one of the warning signs I look for is if the blurb says something like “Lord of the Rings meets Terry Pratchett” or “Star Trek meets Star Wars.” However I tend to like the Hugo winners and really did this time.
The book is centered on Earth, it could be an alternate universe Earth or just one a millennium in the future. It is wracked by huge seismic upheavals that have the potential to destroy most of the life on the planet. These events are called The Fifth Season, essentially the season of death. Sky blocked for decades preventing plants from growing, infectious air, poisoned water; it happens over and over, often centuries apart. This has led to the rise and fall of multiple civilizations.
As these events continually occur a subgroup of humans develops the ability to stop temblors and help stop or alleviate the damage. In polite society they are called orogenes but most commonly they are referred to by the derogatory term rogga. Their powers extend beyond simply quelling shakes, and as the book progresses the full capabilities are starting to emerge, but I suspect we will see even greater capabilities in the future. There is also a non-human element of intelligent life called Stone Eaters who can assume human-like shapes and have powers, most of them mostly undefined, and a role that is intriguing and very unclear at the end of the first novel.
The book starts at a time when an empire called the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation centered in its capitol Yumenesa has learned to harness the powers of the orogenes and so help lessen or stop the damages caused by the temblors. They have additional powers, ones that they are not allowed to explore, and the Sanzed have developed a caste called the Guardians who are immune to the powers of the orogenes.
Thie ability of the orogenes, along with a set of rules called ‘stone lore’ have helped the Sanzed and the society it spawned to survive multiple Fifth Seasons. The planet has a single continent, called the Stillness as an obvious parody of what it is really like. Along the equatorial region, where there are no faultlines, there are real cities but elsewhere across the land communities, called comms, are smaller, with large food caches and a semi-rigid caste system that is ever preparing for the arrival of the next Fifth Season.
And another Fifth Season has arrived, and it looks to be the worst on record. As the book opens we see the events that lead up to the catastrophe in a quick summary. Then we are introduced to the cast of characters, some much earlier than the event, some a few years before and the main thread of the book which follows how people are dealing with the emergence of a Fifth Season.
The book follows the converging path of several characters, some orogene and some not. It provides the backstory to some of the characters in detail, some with a bit of backstory and none for others. and leaves you with some surprising conclusions as you progress through the book. You get a strong feeling of who the people involved are, if not what their individual motivations are.
A feature that I really enjoyed was how the history of the world is fed to the reader in bits and pieces instead of a big data dump chapter. You have to figure out how the Earth and society have reached the point it is in at the start of the novel. As you read your understanding increases, but also changes as additional facts are added to established histories. There are continual surprises woven in all along the book that make any early presumptions about its direction very likely to be wrong. Mine were.
As I read the book I really had no idea how it was going to end. Every guess I made turned out to be incorrect, even when the book provided me with some healthy hints along the way. It ends with a huge question hanging unanswered and it was something that I had not really considered until it was mentioned.
I loved the book and hopefully will not wait several years to read the sequels.