Monday 10 August 2015

Book Review | The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

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.


If the Inheritance Trilogy established N. K. Jemisin as a genre writer to be reckoned with, and the Dreamblood Duology demonstrated the range of her capabilities as a creator, book the first of the Broken Earth comprehensively confirms the award-winning worldbuilder as one of our very finest fantasists. Epic in its scope and scale in the same instant as it is intimate, The Fifth Season is rich, relevant and resonant—quite frankly remarkable.

Brilliantly, it begins with an ending; with two intertwined endings, in truth, which, when taken together, foreground Jemisin's focus on the huge and the human. In the first finale, a mother covers the broken body of her little boy—who's been beaten to death by his father simply for being different—with a blanket. Essun does not cover Uche's head, however, "because he is afraid of the dark." (p.1)

These harrowing paragraphs—and paragraphs are all they are, for all their power—are paired with what is, in apocalyptic fiction such as this, a more conventional conclusion. This end "begins in a city: the oldest, largest, and most magnificent living city in the world." (p.2)

Living, is it? Not for long, I'm afraid, for here in Yumenes, at the very centre of the Sanzhen empire, one man brings everything he's ever known to its knees:
He reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. 
Lastly, he reaches up. For power. 
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. 
Then he breaks it. (p.7)
If you're wondering who in the world would do such a wicked thing, if you're wondering why... well. These are questions the author answers eventually, but patience, readers, please. If, on the other hand, you're wondering what manner of man has mastery over lava and the like, see the second appendix: he can only be an orogene, or—if you want to be a bigot about it, as most of the people of the Stillness do, to be sure—a rogga, which is to say someone with "the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy." (p.462)

Someone like Damaya: a little girl who is summarily taken from her parents and left to flounder in the Fulcrum, an imperial facility for schooling the so-called savages of said supercontinent into submission at the same time as teaching them how to apply their powers. After all, "any infant can move a mountain; that's instinct. Only a trained Fulcrum orogene can deliberately, specifically, move a boulder." (p.166)

Someone, similarly, like Syenite: a young woman commanded to spend "a month on the road with a man she cannot stand, doing things she doesn't want to do, on behalf of people she increasingly despises." (p.75) But this, she's told, is "what it means to be civilised—doing what her betters say she should, for the ostensible good of all." (p.75) Except orogenes, obviously. But hey, they're not even people, so why should their health or happiness matter?

Someone, last but not least, like Essun: a mother of two who, having hidden her nature for a decade, is forced into action when her husband slaughters their son and runs off with their daughter. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Essun embarks on a journey south in search of something more, be it revenge or redemption; any reason, really, to keep being. She meets a few fellow travellers on the road, of course, including "Tonkee the commless geomest and Hoa the... whatever he is. Because you're pretty sure by now that he's not human. That doesn't bother you; officially speaking, you're not human, either." (p.234)

These, then, are The Fifth Season's central perspectives; outcasts all, for no other reason than a quirk of birth, doing their very best to survive in a world that despises difference; a world which has gone so far as to enshrine its hatred in its laws and its languages:
Stonelore is as old as intelligence. It's all that's allowed humankind to survive through Fifth Season after Fifth Season, as they huddle together while the world turns dark and cold. The lorists tell stories of what happens when people—political leaders or philosophers or well-meaning meddlers of whatever type—try to change the lore. Disaster invariably results. (p.125)
Basically: better not do anything to rock the boat, right?

Even so, some oregenes—such as Syenite's impossibly powerful master Alabaster—surely would if they could. Alas, "words are inadequate to the task. [...] Maybe someday someone will create a language for orogenes to use. Maybe such a language has existed, and been forgotten, in the past." (p.161) But for the time being, at least, they are unable to communicate, and without communication, as our own history has shown, there can be no organisation, and so forth no recourse against those would, for instance, slaughter a toddler, tear a family apart, or breed people like fucking puppies.

Forgive my heavy-handedness, folks. Jemisin, on the whole, is much gentler. That said, there are several scenes in The Fifth Season that made my blood boil—not least the first lesson Damaya's so-called Guardian teacher her, which begins with a bedtime story and ends with a broken hand. This, then, is a routinely brutal book, however the history of violence it imparts is in service of something essential: a sensitive and affecting exploration of otherness—with respect to race, colour, class, creed, gender and sexuality—as seen from the others' eyes.

But one eye is much like another, no? To wit, it's of no small significance that perhaps half of the narrative is told in the second person—a fine stylistic line that Jemisin treads, to tremendous effect, with little evident effort. "You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember?" (p.15) This arresting perspective implicates us in the fiction, thus the horrors that befall her befall readers equally; the deeply-ingrained discrimination Essun is subject to, we must suffer through too: her pain is not something she alone owns, for she is we, and we are she. As it should be.

The Fifth Season isn't as easy to read as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was, way back when. As yet, it isn't as awesome, or as complete, or as immediately appealing, but it is, I think, the most potent and important book N. K. Jemisin has yet penned. Bolstered by beautifully measured letters—prose so soaring that put me in mind of my personal favourite fantasist's, in fact—a wonderfully worked world, however morally abhorrent it may be, and a cast of cleverly connected characters so tragic that they're true, it's a novel as haunting as it is astonishing.

In and of itself, I'd recommend The Fifth Season without reservation or hesitation—and as the beginning of something bigger, something still more ambitious, the first book of The Broken Earth lays the foundation for a tremendous trilogy I simply thrill at the thought of continuing.


The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin

UK & US Publication: August 2015, Orbit

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  1. I think this is one I'm going to have to pick up in paperback and linger over.


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