– J.W. Fox –
In what is the first book review in over a year, I decided to go with the most critically-acclaimed speculative fiction series at the moment, the first novel in the Broken Earth Series, The Fifth Season. It is called a science fantasy novel but I don’t really know why a subgenre like science fantasy needed to be created or if it is really catching on or not. Anyway that is what the editors at Wikipedia decided to call it.
N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel is a connection of three stories from three women. Essun is a middle-aged woman with a family living in a small village of Tirimo. Damaya is a young child who is sold by her parents to a secretive order, and Syenite, a gifted young member of that same order. All three share a unique ability called orogeny. They are able to manipulate geothermic energy and create earthquakes and generate extreme changes in temperature within their area of influence, a space they call their torus. All three struggle with persecution and repression in a primitive civilization built upon a geologically unstable Earth.
The Stillness of Broken Earth
Before getting into the stories of the three women, The Broken Earth series deserves recognition for some truly impressive world-building. Jemisin’s novel takes place on Earth during a strange time. There is one supercontinent called the Stillness. Every few centuries there are catastrophic earthquakes and shifts in climate that kill millions and force survivors to endure the equivalent of the long winter in Game of Thrones, but they call it the fifth season. Not only that, there is a high level of tectonic activity that levels cities on towns and a regular basis.
To protect the people from “Father Earth”, humanity turns to a small group of gifted individuals called orogenes. They calm the tectonic movements in an effort to protect the Stillness from natural disasters. The Fulcrum is the elite order of orogenes, only they are not treated as an elite. Instead of being a powerful monastic order or elitist aristocracy like the Jedi, the orogenes are slaves. They are repressed by another order of special individuals called Guardians, who are able to negate orogeny and keep their wards in check. If necessary, they will execute them.
It isn’t explicit but hints in the story strongly suggests this is a future Earth that has endured a long series of calamities. The Stillness feels like a post-apocalyptic realm of survivors living a life equivalent to a late middle age empire. All modern technology is lost, buried beneath the Earth or in ruins. Only stonelore remains, proverbs and stories carved into rock. Passages are sprinkled through the book, and suggest an pagan animist belief system with wisdom drawn from unknown ages and times.
It is the unique cultures of the Stillness that set Jemisin’s world-building apart from others. While some of its elements are recognizable, many are truly innovative. It reminded me of Dark Age kingdoms built upon the ruins of Rome. They live among the old buildings but have no idea how they were built, let alone understand the symbols, culture, science or philosophy of their Roman ancestors. The Stillness is a realm of ignorance, superstitions, and cruel oppressive policies built on pieces of ancient lore of which no one knows its origin.
Abandoning the more familiar notion that Earth is feminine, broken Earth is referred to Father Earth, probably symbolic of its more aggressive/active and violent nature. The people of this broken place take their names and symbols not from the skies or from nature, but from the ground beneath them. Syenite, for example, is the name of an igneous rock. Knowledge is drawn from stones, not paper scrolls or books made from plants. None of the characters seem to notice many animals, other than a feral like dog that attacks Essun and other survivors. Gods and power comes from below, not above.
Then there are the most enigmatic inhabitants of this Earth, the stone eaters. These beings appear to be made of solid rock and are able to travel through the ground at will. They resemble humans but have little in common with them. They have other abilities as well, similar to the orogenes but are able to avoid persecution by remaining hidden. Little is known about them but they seem to have some kind of connection to the women of the three stories.
Other popular fantasy tropes fixate on the power of mother nature and the heavens. Jemisin was inspired by the Earth below, a region long held to be the realm of evil creatures and the gateway to Hades or Hell. Below us is an inhospitable place and a source of fire and death. Most cultures looked to places above, either the stars, or shining cities on hills that look down upon a vast fertile valley or plain. Height and elevation is associated with divinity, esteem, and power. Beneath our feet is where the vermin dwell. Unlike the heavenly elves of Rivendell, it is where you’ll find the greedy, isolationist dwarves and the barbaric orcs and goblins.
The Three Women
The people of the Stillness fear orogenes and often kill any children who exhibit powers. The Fulcrum are viewed with suspicion and apprehension, even though they are kept in line by the Guardians. Any loss of control, misuse of orogeny, or inkling of defiance is snuffed out violently and without mercy. Essun is an orogeny who must hide her powers. When she notices her children exhibiting the same power, she relentlessly tries to suppress it and hide them for fear her neighbors would slaughter them without hesitation.
After Damaya accidentally kills a classmate with her power, she is forced to live in the barn alone until a Guardian comes and takes her. Her parents cannot wait to get rid of her. Syenite, meanwhile, is an experienced member of the Fulcrum but possesses a festering hatred for her order, herself, and the world. It is easy to hate when the Fulcrum orders her to have a child with another talented orogeny as part of a breeding program.
The chronology of their three stories is not clear early on but the impression the reader gets is that they are taking place at different times. In Essun’s story, a historic earthquake has devastated most of the continent, except for her town. Essun is able to shield it from the quake. She roams an apocalyptic ruin after finding her son beaten to death, desperately search of her missing husband and daughter. Damaya’s story takes place in calmer times, while a strange events start to occur around Syenite but nothing like the devastation that takes place near Essun.
At this point, some of you might have guess that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are the same woman at different points in her life. At each of these three points, she is the victim of unspeakable cruelty. Although powerful, she is kept restrained by the Guardians and the fear of the common people around here. The fear and prejudice against them is similar to that experienced by mutants in the X-Men comics and movies. Some simply want to be treated equal, others wish to be free to achieve great things, and others are angry at the pain they’ve suffered by the hands of non-mutants.
There are other allusions to oppression and slavery as well. Syenite possesses that anger and hatred but her Fulcrum training and attentive Guardian ensure she does not lash out or misuse or abilities, like a slave master. Instead, they place her in a breeding program so to give birth to orogenes with superior abilities. This is reminiscent of the most horrific stories of slave breeding in the antebellum south. When she is younger and goes by the name Damaya, her family sell her, treating her not as a person but as chattel. When she becomes Essun, she must conceal her true identity and origins in order to live a normal life.
End of an Age
The catastrophic event that brings earthquakes and climate shift is referred to as the eponymous fifth season. The protagonist is living at the end of her age and the dawn of the fifth season. With it will go the Fulcrum, and all the cities and towns of the Stillness. The survivors will have to live through long winters and emerge to start over. For her, this may be a welcome end to a miserable life within a cruel, racist civilization.
Through the three stories, she discovers small clues to the mystery of the deadcivs. Damaya discovers a mysterious pit at the center of the Fulcrum complex. Syenite unearths an Obelisk and feels its mysterious power for a brief moment before she is nearly killed. Essun comes across an odd underground complex built inside a massive geode with wondrous machinery inside it. The inhabitants did not build it but have learned a few of its mechanisms and learned to live there hidden from the normies on the surface.
What is the significance of the pit? The obelisk? The underground geode complex? Why do the stone eaters help Syenite?
Jemisin ends the first novel with a cliffhanger. None of the mysteries are revealed, although it is hinted at with one passage early in the novel (I won’t spoil it here). As a result, The Fifth Season does not attempt to stand alone. It is Act 1 of a bigger story. This is often problematic. It feels as if I just read a 500 page introduction, which is a little frustrating. Now I have to buy a second book just to find out what the hell is happening on this broken Earth. Numerous editors and literary agents have explained to me this is a mistake.
In this case, it wasn’t a catastrophic mistake but it would have been better to have some sort of plot development at the end of this one. Jemisin built a powerful hook with a tantalizing Earth mystery and three interesting stories. Yet this novel, on its own, just isn’t satisfying, largely due to the ending. Was I hooked enough to pick up the second novel? Yes, thanks to the Indiana Jones/Da Vinci Code-like ancient mystery. At the same time, I am being asked to read another 500 pages, so my expectations are much higher for the second novel.
As for Jemisin’s historic threepeat of Hugo Awards, I am a little baffled in terms of how this first novel won. Not that the Hugos carry that much authority, in my opinion. The Hugo Awards are largely given to a small clique of speculative fiction authors. A peak at previous nominees will find many of the same names over and over, and some huge names noticeably absent. That is not to say N.K. Jemisin isn’t deserving of acclaim, only that I really don’t think this novel by itself is an award winner. Perhaps the trilogy as a whole is extraordinary, but awards aren’t supposed given retroactively to awesome trilogies or on the promise of great sequels.
My criticisms of the Hugos aside, The Fifth Season is innovative, gripping at times, and has great potential as the first in a series. I’ll have to read on and see if it lives up to the hype.
J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.