Almost exactly two years ago, I finished N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, which is all about gods and race and class and religion. Her plotting is Byzantine, but her characterization is terrific, and I heard nothing but praise for her Broken Earth trilogy. So here we are.
The Fifth Season takes place on a planet with a single supercontinent called the Stillness. Every few centuries, the planet’s inhabitants go through what they call a Fifth Season of catastrophic climate change: needlelike rain, volcanoes, earthquakes, inexplicable and crippling crop failure. The earth is littered with the remnants of previous, failed civilizations, and the current one (Sanzed) is convinced that their way of life is the best, the only way, because it is the one that has survived to the present day.
But Jemisin slowly reveals that this civilization has a lot wrong with it. Their caste system leaves whole categories of people frightened, hated, and trapped. Orogenes are people born with the ability to control the energy of the earth — people who can cause or prevent earthquakes — and those of them who aren’t being killed by their families and communities are being used by a training center called the Fulcrum to make the earth more stable. And it’s frankly not much better for other castes: Strongbacks, Breeders, and others don’t have much choice about their path in life.
We see a lot of this through the eyes of three orogenes: Essun, a mother of two who has to scramble to get her life back together after an enormous earthquake leaves her town suspicious of her and her children; Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained orogene who has been sent to do what at first appears to be a routine task (cleaning a harbor of excess coral) and becomes something far more dangerous; and Damaya, a little girl who has been handed over by her family to the Fulcrum for training. We flip back and forth between point of view, and Jemisin lets us fill in the gaps in world-building (something she’s just brilliant at) without a lot of info-dumping.
So how do you deal with huge external changes in a massively caste-and class- and race- ridden society, one that is convinced of its rightness? I think this book invites us to consider whether the end of the world is such a bad thing if the world itself is unjust. I found myself really wrapped into each storyline as it was told, eagerly following the characters, watching for them to see into the cracks of the world and notice that a different way was possible.
I found this book to be less… busy, is maybe the word, than the Inheritance trilogy books — easier to keep track of and remember the plot, which is good for me as by the end of those novels (which I liked a lot) I had trouble keeping track of what was going on! I am very interested to read Obelisk Gate and find out what happens next.