I’ve heard a lot of good things about N. K. Jemisin and I was impressed with this imaginative science fantasy novel, the first in her Broken Earth trilogy, even if I felt that it succeeds on a world-building level far better than characterisation.
The story takes place in a land called the Stillness, a bitterly ironic name for the world that’s plagued by constant seismic activity, and regularly experiences near-extinction apocalypses that are referred to by its inhabitants as the Fifth Seasons. Any settlement (or comm as they’re referred to in the book) can be certain that, sooner or later, it will be destroyed by earthquake, tsunami, volcanic activity or extreme climate change. In people’s imagination, Father Earth hates their very existence and does everything to wipe them off its face for good, but so far the human race has managed to pull through every cataclysm, even when the entire individual civilisations perish.
The current civilisation, Sanze Empire, has survived for centuries by organising itself into a rigid caste system, implementing long-term disaster policies, and harnessing the power of orogeny. Orogenes are rare individuals with an innate ability to control energy, especially when it comes to tectonic activity; they can start or prevent an earthquake and draw energy from the living creatures.
For all their immense powers, orogenes have no control over their own lives. If they’re not outright killed in childhood upon discovery by the common folk who hate and fear them, they’re captured and sent off to be trained at a location called the Fulcrum (a cruel version of Hogwarts basically), and spend their lifetimes in servitude to the empire, stilling earthquakes, clearing harbours and making more useful orogene babies according to careful breeding programs. They are policed by a separate caste called the Guardians, who are immune to the orogeny and can neutralise them when necessary.
It’s not a spoiler to say that a brand new Fifth Season kicks off at the start of the book, but with two crucial differences to anything else that had happened before. One, it’s entirely manmade, with a single individual cracking the world in half like a dinner plate; two, unlike the previous Seasons that lasted decades at worst, this one is to cover the world in ash clouds for a few thousand years. Food caches aren’t going to do the trick this time.
Having started with the end of the world, the novel then jumps timeframes, exploring the immediate aftermath of the disaster while also connecting the dots in the past, painting the “before” picture of the society and how the enslavement of the orogenes ultimately led to this monumental act of destruction. It does so through three different viewpoints: a woman who, on the day of the cataclysm, comes home to discover that her husband killed their young son and fled with their daughter after the murder; a young girl who is discovered to be an orogene by her parents; and a rising star of the Fulcrum who is assigned on a routine mission with an older, more powerful orogene.
The novel comes with a big fat glossary in the end, but even without it the astounding amount of care and detail Jemisin put into this complex fictional world is there on display. From time to time, our own world reminds us that our civilisation is fragile and we’re all at the mercy of powerful natural forces, so there’s something very haunting about the world where extinction events are commonplace and aren’t separated by a soothing amount of time. A few expressions used in the book took me out of the story for being too modern and too recognisably of our own world, overall though the language flows nicely and even the second-person narration didn’t come off as irritating. The themes of prejudice and oppression and society fearing super-powered beings aren’t exactly new to anyone who’s watched a bunch of X-Men movies, but the novel still packs in some hard-hitting moments. The book also ends with many intriguing dangling threads to be explored in the next instalment, which I look forward to reading.
Where the book faltered for me was in the choice the writer made that I didn’t even realise was a choice until I started reading other people’s reviews. Apparently it came as a surprise to other readers so here’s a spoiler warning.
I assumed from the start that the three viewpoints in the book were the same character from different periods in her life, which seemed natural considering that their stories were obviously not parallel and appeared to flow into one another. But apparently this was actually meant to be a major revelation for the readers in the end: guess what it’s the same person!
It explained what felt like a bizarre detail while I was reading the book, where the character never alluded or thought back to what had happened to her previously, which made her seem rather opaque and remote. Maybe Jemisin wanted to make a point about endings and new beginnings, but to me the whole thing felt like an unnecessary gimmick that hurt the characterisation and emotional impact rather than enhanced it.