“Broken” commonly means physical damage to an object, but Jemisin takes it further with a broken world, broken system, and broken people. The Fifth Season pushes boundaries for genre fantasy, going beyond escapism, adventures, and quests that are so typical of fantasy.
The world is broken, and the people have to live in it. The Stillness is prone to catastrophes that leave the place uninhabitable for years, even decades, and the people call these Fifth Seasons. Many civilizations have risen and fallen with Fifth Seasons. The people have developed a culture and mentality geared towards long-term survival. Add to that, there are people who are gifted with abilities to manipulate the earth called orogenes. They can prevent catastrophes or reduce its effects, yet, for all their power, they are feared and kept under tight control by the Fulcrum and its Guardians.
The people’s status quo could be summed up with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and, in following three different storylines and their characters, readers will learn that there is a bigger, more complicated situation. There is Damaya, a young orogene girl taken to the Fulcrum for boot camp-style training. Syenite is a young orogene woman tasked with two regular-seeming missions who gets a huge wake-up call about the complex politics involving orogenes. Essun is a middle-aged mother and rogue orogene whose child was murdered, and she seeks revenge. Readers learn about orogenes, with different perspectives from the varying ages and experiences. Their seemingly separate stories eventually connect. Orogenes are considered monsters without any rights, even on a Fulcrum leash. More than just a story about the orogene plight, things get complicated by competing interests from orogenes, the Guardians, stone builders (a separate humanoid species that little is known about), and the current government, and all these groups have their own factions. Then, there are hints of a mysterious technology from the past that may play a role in the outcome of this mess.
The world-building and development are phenomenal. This book is well-crafted, incorporating a world created from the ground up, a people and culture built around survival (and how it affects issues of diversity), orogenes with their fearsome-but-tightly-controlled abilities, and unique voices using second and third present tense. This is a powerful, well-written story, with the world-building and story carefully integrated together. The main characters are well-developed, giving readers an inside look into orogene life, as well as the people’s survivor mentality and culture, and how short-sighted they are in understanding the world, which is all fascinatingly foreign to readers. Often, fantasy runs along the lines of escapism, adventure, and a main character with a quest to accomplish, sometimes with a strange world as background, so it becomes about saving the day. Here, there are long-term problems and issues that are not going to be easily resolved.
Look for The Fifth Season and its sequels in the VBPL Catalog. Try Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy (starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) and her Dreamblood duology (starting with The Killing Moon). For more works with strong world-building, try Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series (starting with Ancillary Justice).
Reviewed by Tracy V.