It’s not so often that I find myself completely absorbed in a novel. I feel I’m too restless to fully fall into a story. My mind can’t seem to settle in—always wondering why the author made certain choices, bemoaning the lack of character development or some structural nitpicking, or combating distractions of my day. There is always some reason that I can seem to completely immerse myself in the world laid out before me. So there’s nothing quite like the feeling I get when a novel is able to completely envelop me into its world. “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin is a novel that did just that. I’m talking—spine cracked, walking around book in hand, not bothering to look up or realize someone is trying to speak to me—immersion.
“The Fifth Season” is the first installation of The Broken Earth Trilogy. In case my forthcoming endorsement isn’t enough, you should know N.K. Jemisin won the Hugo Award in 2015 for best novel. She was the first black author to win for this category. Then she won again in 2016 and 2017 for the next two novels in the series (becoming the first ever to win three consecutive years). And the last I checked, there is talk of a potential miniseries in the works! Clearly many others found this book and series to be worthy of praise.
The setting takes place on a supercontinent called the Stillness, a place that is plagued with the occasional seismic disruptions which cause earthquakes and storms that threaten to end civilization. The time between these changes are referred to as “seasons.” We begin the book with the dawn of a new season—the earth shatters, causing widespread destruction, throwing the world into survival mode. The twist: this season has not kicked off from the natural disruptions from the earth, but from a single man, a master orogene.
Orogenes are small minority of the population. They are born with the magical ability to harness and control the energy from earth. They are viewed as a threat to society, as an untrained orogene can be as destructive as they are helpful. For this reason, orogenes are often killed by their own communities if discovered. They can also be hunted down by the ruling empire and brought to the Fulcrum, a training facility where orogenes learn to harness their power.
Before I get into the orgone story, I want to talk a little about the world that Jemisin built. As in many fantasy series, this first installment spends a lot of time world building. There is a glossary at the end, but you can get by without constantly referencing it. The world unfolds through our characters perspectives. Gradually, we learn a bit about the Stillness’ politics, society, geography, and myths. We also gradually are introduced to other folks all around the Stillness. And I think here is where this book stands up from the countless of other fantasies I’ve read.
Most of the fantasies I read carry casts of eurocentric (read: white), heteronormative, and cisgender folks. If there are characters that don’t fit into those categories, they are usually minor. The collection of people we meet in the Stillness are as diverse as they come, and better yet, it’s the norm. It’s refreshing to be able to watch characters of all different sizes, shapes, colors, gender, orientation, and creed be able to live their lives without shame or prejudice.
The Stillness is wildly diverse; it is comprised of many geographical regions for which Jemisin carefully assigns racial characteristics to the groups living there. The regional groups closely mirror groups that we find in our own reality: white folks are originally from the polar regions, while black and brown folks populate the areas around the equator, etc. The Sanzed Empire is the power player that united the regions and communities, thus a more connected world allows all people to travel and intermingle with other groups. The empire seems to have a globalizing effect on the continent, in which people are able to go anywhere without fear of prejudice or discrimination.
Women are in leadership, in the working class, and are even warlords in the same numbers as men. Women aren’t considered weak or only suitable for certain jobs. Even the “Breeder” caste traps men just as much as it traps women (besides the whole giving birth part–women still take care of that). In some regions, the gender variance of their bodies are not all that different. Gender identity is not something that is scrutinized here, as it is in our world. One character, whose role I suspect will only grow in the next books, happens to be a transwoman, who is able to just live her life. There are even non typical relationships that are explored in these pages. All of it is wonderful and amazing.
While the population is quite diverse, they do not have the same racial and gendered issues that fault our society. That is not to say none exist, but their world appears to be a lot more inclusive than ours. While the Stillness may not have our society’s exact issues, it has its own. Jemisin plants something else that focuses the general population’s misunderstanding, fear, and hatred. Orogenes become the targets of this world and through their subjugation we see how systematic oppression is applied.
Our story unfolds from the points-of-view of three orogenes from across the Stillness. It quickly becomes clear that the story will be delivered in a non-linear format (my favorite). We begin with Essun, a mother dealing with the loss of her son immediately following the events that begin the Fifth Season. We also follow two younger orogenes whose stories take place pre-season; Syen is a Fulcrum-trained orogene sent on a routine mission and Dayama is a young student just beginning her training. The way these POVs layer into each other is positively wonderful. The structure of the timelines fold into one another to both foreshadow and then slowly reveal the connections between the characters and time.
Orogenes are a marginalized group in society, as has been the practice for all of the Stillness’ known history. So much so that a mythos surrounds them that implies they are less than human. Many orogenes live in hiding, as they fear repercussions of the general population if they were found out. Many of these orogenes are murdered and lynched in some communities. If the communities do not get to them, the Guardians will. Guardians are a little magical themselves, sent out by the Empire to essentially kidnap “feral” or untrained orogenes. They are brought to the Fulcrum, which is spun as a training center, but the instruction borders torture. Unruly orogenes are dealt with–which is to say, never seen again. Once graduated, they are put to work around the Stillness to quell imminent earthquakes or minor shakes. Some are even forced to breed with other selected orogenes to produce genetically superior orogenes for the Fulcrum. In other words, there is no freedom for orogenes. The oppressive structure of their society keeps them enslaved.
As we witness these orogenes, we are able to see the complex world Jeminsin has built. A world that is frustrating, unfair, and filled with mystery. I see many parallels between the political and social structures that govern the Stillness to the past and present systematic oppression that govern ours. In this way, reading this fantasy wasn’t so much of a blissful escape from reality, but rather a cruel reflection of it. But I found strength in our lead characters, as well as the willfulness to learn and evolve, which ultimately brings about the elusive possibility of change–a hope that things can be better, even if it hasn’t been imagined before.
In her acceptance speech for The Stone Sky, Jeminsin says she wrote The Broken Earth Trilogy to speak to “what it takes to live, let alone thrive, in a world that seems determined to break you.” The systematic oppression orogenes face is so ingrained in their society, that most do not even question it. It is designed to break them into submission, so that there is no questioning or challenging the status quo. It is just the way things are. The force is so great, the notion to even be free is a radical notion. Through the stories of these characters, we see them opening their eyes to the possibility of something else. This book feels like a stepping stone to something bigger, something revolutionary, and I am fully planning to dive into the rest of this series to find out.
Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant to begin this book. A fantasy epic which centers around folks with geologically based powers. Is this something I will find interesting? The answer was an emphatic yes and then some. This book not only fills a void present in other the fantasy series I’ve read, but does so with such care and nuance that it’s hard not to fall in love with.