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Hello, friends! Today I’m reviewing my favorite book of 2020: The Fifth Season, the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. With multiple POVs, several timelines, and a diverse cast of characters, her novel tells a visceral tale of losing, finding, and forging yourself through fire.
When we say "the world has ended," it is usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends... For the last time.
the world of the fifth season
Welcome to The Stillness! You haven’t come at a great time… although, on a supercontinent plagued with near-constant climatic cataclysms (known as Seasons), maybe there isn’t a good time. For thousands of years, a war has been raging on between Father Earth, orogenes (those who can quell and control seismic activity), and stills (those who cannot). But this time, it’s really, really bad.
Jemisin introduces us to the tumultuous landscape of The Stillness on a particularly bad day for one of our protagonists, Essun. The Equatorials have been obliterated in a seismic catastrophe that will come to be known as the Rifting. Whether it is man-made or naturally occurring remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: this season is shaping up to be one of the worst on record.
Jemisin takes her time to develop the world of The Stillness with purpose and intent. There are no clunky prologues loaded with exposition and no clumsy character introductions. The book includes a glossary of terms (the bolded words throughout the review) and a timeline of past Seasons; but, if one gives this novel the attention it deserves, the appendices are merely bonus content.
There was an age before the seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike... The people became what Father Earth needed, and then more than He needed. Then we turned on Him, and he has burned with hatred for us ever since.
characters in the fifth season
It’s not a spoiler to say that this book includes chapters told from multiple perspectives. And, as if that wasn’t ambitious enough, Jemisin chooses to tell Essun’s story in the second-person. This is brilliant because the second-person endows us with the al-knowing omniscience of the third-person, without sacrificing the intimacy of the first-person.
The other two storylines are no less impactful for being told in the traditional third-person perspective. In witnessing Damaya’s transformation from feral to grit to wise-beyond-her-years first-ringer, we learn how the Fulcrum makes — and breaks — its orogenes. Through our observation of Syenite (a four-ringer), we see how harsh realities can disturb even the most desensitized Imperial Blackjacket.
Included in all this is an effortlessly diverse cast of characters. Folks are unceremoniously revealed to be gay, straight, or bisexual. There are men and women in polyamorous relationships. There is a trans* character whose identity is expressed matter-of-factly and which our characters accept without question. Jemisin calls into question everything we’ve been told to believe by seasoned fantasy writers and the real world alike.
Her point with this is that there is no point: these characters are valuable beyond their diversity quotient. Just be inclusive, damn it!
This is what you are at the vein, this small and petty creature. This is the bedrock of your life. Father Earth is right to despise you, but do not be ashamed. You may be a monster, but you are also great.
Damaya’s story begins as her life seems to be making a turn for the better. A Guardian called Schaffa has come to take her to the Fulcrum. Here, she’ll learn how to strengthen her orogeny and use her powers for the greater good. Schaffa’s ominous reverence of her abilities inspires some unease in Damaya. Still, he promises to love and protect her, so she trusts him.
As time and their relationship evolve, however, the roles become reversed. Damaya learns that it is Schaffa whose mysterious strength must be feared; she is the one who must fight her instincts and love that which threatens her existence. And so, with blood, sweat, and a whole lot of tears, Damaya masters her orogeny.
Through Damaya, Jemisin explores the strife of self-discovery. Like many marginalized young people, Damaya grows up believing that her differences make her dangerous. In reality, it is others’ perceptions of her (and those like her) that are dangerous. Jemisin captures the determination to prove oneself worthy of love and respect despite what society says we deserve.
They know what they are and they have accepted all that means, and they fear nothing - not the stills, not themselves, not even Old Man Earth. If to achieve this Damaya must endure a few broken bones, or a few years in a place where no one loves or even likes her, that is a small price to pay.
Syenite’s story begins as she is travels across The Stillness to a coastal comm called Allia. Syenite grew up in the Fulcrum and has long since come to terms with the precarious power balance at play within its walls. What she isn’t prepared for is the way Alabaster, the ten-ringer to whom she is responsible, will upend everything she has been told to accept.
While Syenite and Alabaster have been lucky (read: skilled) enough for the Fulcrum to see them as useful, not all orogenes are so fortunate. And, while she has worked hard to improve her social status, she thinks poorly of the orogenes who have let the same opportunity pass them by. What Syenite doesn’t realize is that many of the orogenes she frowns upon weren’t even given a chance to prove themselves, as she was.
With Syenite, Jemisin comments on the complacency that often accompanies privilege. Syenite knows she’s a monster. But, the Fulcrum tells her, she’s one of the good ones. She has never confronted what it means to be one of the “bad ones” — until now. Learning about the plight of her not-so-fortunate brothers and sisters shows her that all it would take for her security to be ripped away is for someone in power to change their mind.
This is why she hates Alabaster: not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.
Essun’s story begins at the end of the world. But you already knew that. One day, she comes home to discover her three-year-old son beaten to death on her living room floor. Her abandoned home tells Essun one thing: her husband, Jija, is responsible for this. What’s worse: Jija has fled and taken their daughter, Nassun, with him. With a son to avenge and a daughter to rescue, Essun goes on the run.
With Essun, Jemisin shows us that a parent’s love may be boundless, but it is not always flawless. At first, her fire is lit by the responsibility she feels for her children becoming victims of Jija’s rage. As the coals of self-reproach cool, however, Essun turns from self-blame to determination. Time on the road allows her to ponder what it truly means to be a family during the desperate times of a season.
As she travels, she inadvertently adopts a commless little boy she calls Hoa and a nearly commless geomest woman named Tonkee. Hoa doesn’t talk much, and Tonkee never stops, but Essun soon realizes there’s safety in numbers during a Season. What starts as a journey for justice turns into a quest for community across an increasingly ash-laden landscape.
You'll jigsaw [the broken pieces of yourself] together however you can, caulk in the odd bits with willpower wherever they don't quite fit, ignore the occasional sounds of grinding and cracking. As long as nothing important breaks, right? You'll get by. You have no choice.
who should read the fifth season?
Personally, I think everyone should read The Fifth Season. Jemisin successfully balances her main characters’ intimate and personal stories with the epic, sweeping landscape that serves as the backdrop of their lives. The Fifth Season explores the different kinds of love we have for the families we’re given and the ones we choose. Ultimately, The Fifth Season is a story about losing yourself in moments of tragedy, forging on through the flames, and, on the other side, finding who you really were all along.
I gave this book five stars, which means I believe its merits transcend genre and audience. This is a slow-burn, character-driven story that relies heavily on the unique world of The Stillness. While I know these slow and steady stories aren’t for everyone, I truly believe everyone should give The Fifth Season a shot. If you want a sample of what you’ll get in The Fifth Season, check out the short story on which it is based: Stone Hunger, free on Clarkesworld Magazine.
There is a sense of longing that permeates the pages of this book. Essun longs for a family she can protect from the dangers of their world. Syenite longs to be loved, not just for what she can do but who she is. Damaya simply longs to belong. As the story progresses, Damaya, Syenite, Essun, and we, the reader, learn that, sometimes, tragedy, as an ending, can be a catalyst for a new beginning.
This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another.
You can also read my reviews on Goodreads. Check this one out here. And, If you need some more convincing, check out Hamad’s spoiler-free review of The Fifth Season on his blog, The Book Prescription.
now it’s your turn!
So, there you have it! My thoughts on The Fifth Season. Have you read this book or anything else by N.K. Jemisin? If so, what did you think? What was your favorite read of 2020? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
As always, thanks for reading!