The Fifth Season

I know it may sound odd, what with N. K. Jemisin winning the Hugo Award for best novel twice, but thus far I had only read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from her. The book was a solid debut, no doubt about it. Yet like most SFF debuts, it featured a number of flaws, most notably a first-person narrative that can be tricky at times, as well as a corny love story and some decidedly clichéd villains. Still, all in all, Jemisin's fantasy debut was an original and enjoyable read.

Although the characterization was subpar, N.K. Jemisin scored points for exploring themes such as slavery, sexism, racism, and the abuse of power. She wove these deeper issues throughout the various plotlines, sometimes subtly in the background and sometimes in more flagrant fashion. Regardless of how it was done, this was what ultimately gave soul to the novel.

And though I was in no hurry to continue on with the Inheritance trilogy, this is what made me want to read The Fifth Season. Since everyone appeared to agree that this was her best work to date (since then the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, has also won the Hugo Award), I felt that this was the book I had to read next. So I bought myself a copy and I'm glad I did. Indeed, The Fifth Season delivers on all fronts and I can see why it was nominated for all those genre literary prizes.

Here's the blurb:


A season of endings has begun.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

The Fifth Season is a blend of fantasy and science fiction. More fantasy than scifi, mind you, but there is science involved in the premise. The worldbuilding is particularly interesting and just might be my favorite facet of this novel. The Earth has changed dramatically and has become an extremely geologically unstable world. Seismic activities cause enormous volcanic eruptions and tsunamis that wipe out vast chunks of the planet's population periodically. These catastrophes generating extended winters are known as Fifth Seasons and they can last for years and decades. The Stillness is the only continent known to exist. Orogenes have the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events. Trained at the Fulcrum and closely supervised by the Guardian order, they are despised and feared due to the potentially devastating powers they wield. In addition to the Fulcrum, there is also a network of nodes manned by orogenes positioned throughout the Stillness to help reduce or quell seismic events. Such an unstable and unforgiving environment makes for a truly original setting, something that we haven't seen before, and I loved everything about it. The novel begins with a new breaking of the world, one that might signal the true end of existence, for this new Fifth Season could last for centuries and even millennia.

The tale features three points of view. It is evident that those three perspectives will meet at some point, but for the better part of the book they are not concomitant. The first POV follows Essun's tale. A mature orogene with a buried past who kept her talent secret, she had two children with a man. The story opens up with Essun discovering the corpse of her young son. He was beaten to death by his father upon discovery that he was orogene. The man fled the village with his daughter and Essun follows him in order to kill him for what he did. Little does she know that the apocalyptic civilization-ending catastrophe that occurred in the South will have dire consequences on her quest. Her only hope is to find her daughter alive, for the girl may also possess her mother's powers. The second storyline follows Damaya, a young girl whose orogeny manifested itself for the first time. Her parents sell her to a Guardian who will take her to the Fulcrum to be trained. From her POV, we discover how young orogenes are educated to serve and protect the Stillness. The third thread follows Syenite, an orogene with great potential who must accompany Alabaster, one of the most powerful orogenes in the world, on a mission. She is also expect to get pregnant by him and give birth to what could be another potent orogene. It's obvious that these three perspectives take place at various moments in the tale's timeline and I liked how Jemisin was able to weave them all into a convoluted tapestry of events that comes together beautifully toward the end.

There is a good balance between the three storylines that keep the plot moving at a nice rhythm. The Fifth Season may not be a fast-paced novel, but it is definitely a page-turner. However, N. K. Jemisin may have kept her cards a little too close to her chest regarding fascinating concept such as the floating obelisk, the Fulcrum, the stone eaters, and the past are concerned. A little more information would have been appreciated. The cryptic bits and pieces that she provided just made you want to discover more and more and more. Though it wasn't telegraphed per se, I saw the moon thing coming from a mile away and kept wondering when it would be addressed.

For the most part, The Fifth Season is one vast introduction to an even bigger tale. I can't really say more about the three seemingly disparate perspectives without giving anything away, but the structure of the plot precluded the secondary characters from playing major roles in what happened. I have a feeling that the supporting cast will have greater importance as the story unfolds in the sequels. Here's to hoping that this will be the case, for Tonkee and Hua seemed to have a lot of potential and I'm looking forward to see them take their rightful place in the scheme of things.

With all three plotlines coming together in such superb fashion at the end, I was truly disappointed by the cliffhanger ending. True, it makes it impossible for anyone not to read the second volume, The Obelisk Gate, but for me it was also a bit of a letdown. After such a compelling and absorbing read, I felt the novel deserved a real ending.

The Fifth Season is a demanding yet very rewarding read. Like in Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, the author drops you off in a very complex world where litte makes sense at the beginning. Just buckle up and enjoy the ride, for Jemisin takes you on an ambitious and emotional journey across uncharted waters. And even if the ending or lack thereof left me put off, the first installment in The Broken Earth series is a gripping read filled with engaging characters and an enthralling setting.

Hard to put down.

The final verdict: 8.5/10

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