“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
Beginning the book with an apocalypse as a cold open is just the first audacious and bold maneuver that writer N.K. Jemisin pulls off in The Fifth Season, the first of the Broken Earth series. The Fifth Season continues Jemisin’s technique of crafting interesting, diverse and unique fantasy worlds to explore ideas, concepts and characters in her burgeoning signature style. I listened to this in audiobook form, an excellent narration by Robin Miles.
After that cold open, and a very brief immersion into the world, less than a page, the novel launches us into the stories of the characters. The novel focuses on three characters, and given that apocalypse, one quickly realizes that two of the characters’ stories predate that critical cold open event, and one, the character we meet first, is a survivor of the aftermath. The characters are all women, all in different stages of life.
Demaya is the youngest of the characters, a young woman not even in her teens, kept in horrible conditions by her family for reasons that only slowly become clear — she holds a dread power, one that is feared by people for good reason. In a contrast to fantasy narratives where someone of great power is taken from humble origins to the center of the world and an opportunity for power and a coming of age story, Demaya’s story challenges that very traditional narrative. Through her, we get to see the major school of magic and its practitioners from the perspective of someone new to it, giving the author a chance to introduce concepts to the reader in the context of introducing them to her. But she never lets Demaya’s story slip into standard, traditional paths, always challenging the reader, and her character, with the world unfolding around her, often in painful ways.
Syen, in the middle, is a young and eager practitioner of the art of orogeny that Demaya is learning to control and harness. Her story is a bit of a road tale, sent on a mission with a much more senior orogene, on a mission to perform an act on behalf of the Fulcrum, the society training Demaya and the one that gives Syen her authority and legitimacy. Again, what could be a traditional, straightforward narrative is turned on its ear as we not only get to see orogeny from the perspective of someone skilled at it, but we get revelations and illuminations of the dark underside of the society and civilization she is a part of. We also get to see that, even as a member of the Fulcrum, there is fear, mistrust and naked prejudice between the stillhead ordinary people for the orogeny in their midst.
Essun, the oldest, in her forties, is a mother whose son has been killed, not by that book opening apocalypse happening far to the north, but by her husband, who has found the dread secret of what her son can do. It’s made clear that she and her son are both Orogenes like Syen and Demaya, but clearly not connected to the Fulcrum. There is a symmetry with Demaya, whose early, fumbling orogeny is a source of fear for her family. Essun, with the wisdom of years, knows to hide who and what she is from all around her. Even as she does, and has to deal with both the apocalypse and the consequences of the death of her son, the lingering questions of what her relationship is to the practitioners in the center of the world threaten to erupt over a reader and have them consider who and what these characters really are.
The slow and careful revelations, although I was guessing early, of how the three main characters were related to each other, and how they fit into the timeline of the narrative, was fascinating for me to try and figure out even as I walked to and from work listening to the book. I kept my ear open for cues and clues as to how the three women really fit with each other. As their stories unfolded and revelations about the world and themselves were revealed, I was fascinated as how one character’s story helped inform me about what another was facing.
The novel’s plot and theme unfold from the stories of the three characters. The uses of magical power, and the fear and disturbance that power has for themselves, and others. Isolation, slavery, xenophobia, hubris, and the dark underbelly of what it sometimes takes for a civilization to prosper, and what to do when that darkness is exposed. The Fulcrum and its orogenes, and that society and the world’s reactions to orogenes, reminds me strongly of things like the Psi Corps of Babylon 5, the telepaths who are shoved unwillingly into a black box of an organization that controls them in shocking ways, all for the price of protecting society, and a fragile world, from their power. These themes, filtered through the individual stories of the three women, make up what is not a driving plot, but rather a braid of three characters’ stories, interacting in interesting but not always direct ways. Readers who want a stronger hand on a spanning plot might not like this extremely character-focused approach to writing. I can see some readers wondering “Where does the plot really begin?” while missing that it is the emotional and personal journeys of the three characters that composes the plot. I was always driven forward by the fact that two characters, prior to the apocalypse, made me wonder how their stories were going to intersect with that cold open, and how they were going to feed into Essun’s “present day” story, to keep myself listening and driving forward.
There are interesting writing techniques going on here, as well. Jemisin favors using the second person tense for Essun’s passages. In a SF world today where questions of diversity in characters and their types are burning issues, having a book where the reader is explicitly tied to a minority, middle-aged woman by means of this choice of tense is a deliberate and crafty move on the author’s part. It gives an immediacy to Essun’s story that the more removed third person passages for Demaya and Syen don’t have. And yet, given revelations of the book, and given the shock and horror that Essun goes through right from the start of her story, there is an intricate literary balance at work here that the author pulls off beautifully.
For all of its apocalyptic drama and its often dark subject matter, I was extremely drawn in by the worldbuilding. The Stillness is a fantasy world that rewards a deep dive into its construction. There are two glossaries at the back of the book; I did not have easy access to them while listening to this in audio. There is a deep appreciation and wide experience of matters geological in the book, and the author follows the consequences of living on a world that is extraordinarily geologically unstable. How do people live on a pole-to-pole-spanning pangaea-like continent that is continually under geological stress somewhere? How does that shape society? I especially liked the use of “Seasons” as a delimiter of time. The people of the Stillness use major geological events as markers and signposts for large units of time and call these events ‘Seasons’. A community that has lasted “Two seasons” has survived both the most recent event or season, the Choking Season, and the prior one, the Acid Season. By necessity, the people of the stillness have a strong knowledge and understanding of geology and geologic processes, and that comes through into the narrative beautifully. I have an urge to re-listen to this book again while on a road trip through interesting geologic roadside areas like Yellowstone or, say, going up to Capulin Volcano. And I am certain this is the fictional associational book to consume during a visit to Iceland or Hawaii.
I figured out a key piece of the worldbuilding and the setup, and was gratified that this extremely important point, carefully and cleverly suggested, wound up in a payoff in the very last paragraph of the book. I may have even fist pumped my delight. Almost always, a payoff is in a character beat, a plot point, a turn and change in the story. This time, it was a payoff in worldbuilding, and Jemisin delighted me with it.
The book, then, for me was a series of puzzle pieces, a set of tectonic plates of characters, worldbuilding, theme, and plot that interact with each other and the reader, and the reading of those tectonic boundaries and those relationships between those elements of story provides for a rich reading experience. The Fifth Season stands tall as one of the best books I’ve consumed this year. My only regret is that I waited so long. I will not make a similar mistake with The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the series, set to be released in August 2016.