The Fifth Season begins with two cataclysms, one global and one personal, and a quest. In the first, the Earth’s single, planet-spanning continent is shaken by a tectonic event which wipes out cities and fills the skies with ash. In the second, a young boy is murdered by his father, sending the boy’s mother, Essun, on a quest for vengeance. Both Essun and her children, her murdered son and missing daughter, are orogenes, people with the power to use the planet’s heat and energy to control seismic events. This might seem like a useful gift, but on this imagined Earth, orogenes are feared rather than respected for, as the novel’s opening cataclysm demonstrates, they can start seismic shakes as well as quell them.
Among the many literary accolades N.K. Jemisin has received for her Broken Earth series (of which The Fifth Season is the first book) are three Hugo Awards and voluminous praise for her world-building skill. The Fifth Season takes place on an Earth unlike our own in many ways: there is a single continent dominated politically by a lone empire and culturally by the belief that Father Earth hates human beings and wants to destroy them all. To survive this hostile planet’s wrath, the people of The Stillness, as they call it, have compiled their stories and survival techniques on tablets, known as stonelore. They respect “geomestry,” science and technology focused on helping them survive, but reject “astronomestry,” the study of the sky and stars, as pseudoscience. Who has time to look up when the ground beneath your feet is constantly threatening you with death?
Jemisin illustrates this culture masterfully, down to the small details, such as slang. “Rusting” serves as an all-purpose modifier, while Essun exclaims “bloody, burning Earth!” or “Earthfires!” to express surprise or anger. People without orogenic powers (“stills”) label those with such skill as “roggas.” And this conflict — as much as the one between humans and the planet — forms the core of the novel. In the Stillness of The Broken Earth series, there is little racism or homophobia. There are LGBT characters, but they don’t experience discrimination or violence for their sexuality. Essun discerns a person’s regional background from their physical features (“Coasters” have dark skin and kinky hair while “Antarctics” have pale skin and straight hair) but passes no judgement. Yet The Fifth Season does turn on a question of identity: the stark imbalance of power between stills and orogenes.
No matter how imaginative the world building and dramatic the tension, a novel can only succeed with compelling characters. Jemisin does not disappoint, creating fascinating characters who will stay with the reader long after the last page of the novel. Essun, the protagonist, is a complex, dynamic figure, driven by determination to find her daughter as well as by the events of her past that are slowly revealed in a series of a parallel narratives. The Fifth Season and the two following books in the series (The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) stand out as contemporary classics of speculative fiction.