Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Fifth Season - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #1)

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)"For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question."

Wow. How amazing of a book dedication of that? While it's relevant to the book, it's also particularly poignant in light of the fact that Jemisin just won a Hugo Award for The Fifth Season, against hordes of haters who tried to rig the system and are led by a guy who referred to her as an uncivilized "half-savage." And Jemisin writes so many characters who would easily fall into this category of having to fight for respect in our world, though in their own worlds they often end up having to fight for respect for entirely different reasons.

Let's use that as our jumping-off point, shall we? Jemisin writes a wide array of non-white characters (there are only a handful of white characters in this book, and most of them aren't even white in the traditional sense; they are LITERALLY WHITE) who also tend to be all along the spectrum of sexuality and who often have what we would probably consider non-traditional relationships. All of these people would definitely face heavy discrimination in our world. But that's the thing: in their own world, they don't. These things are just accepted, as they should be. Do these characters face discrimination? Yes. But here, it's for a completely different reason...

It's because our main characters are orogenes, otherwise called by the insulting term of rogga. What does this mean? It means that they can manipulate energy and consequently the earth itself, stealing life from other people, animals, and plants in the process. Orogenes are human, but they're not considered as such by the people of the Stillness, the land they inhabit. They're viewed as extremely dangerous and there's an entire order of people called Guardians who are devoted to keeping them in line and killing them if they step out of line. We know from the beginning of the book that our mains are orogenes, and we watch them struggle with this, and how wrong their treatment is, all through it.

This is a hard book to talk about without spoilers, but I'm going to try. The book starts with a man ripping open the Stillness, a land that's not actually still at all, and starting what the narrator refers to as "the last time" of the end of the world. It sets of a cataclysmic event that annihilates the largest, most powerful city on the planet and sends everyone from the equatorial zone scampering for safety further north and south. But that won't help them much, because it's heavily implied this is going to be a disaster that will take thousands of years to go away. In the midst of all this is Essun, whose chapters are written in the second person singular tense (which I'm not particularly fond of) and who is mourning the death of her child, who her husband killed after finding out the kid was an orogene. Essun herself is an orogene, but this was only known by her two children and one other friend in her village. She accidentally betrays her powers and is forced to leave the village, but that's okay, she was going to anyway, because her husband has also made off with her other (also an orogene) child, and she is determined to get her daughter back.

We have two other story threads going on as well. The first is that of the young girl Damaya, who has been discovered as an orogene by her village and parents and is being shipped off to the Fulcrum, a school where orogenes are turned into weapons for the use of the empire. The second is that of Syenite, a four-ringed (which is basically a level-four, of ten) orogene who is being sent on a mission with the only ten-ringed orogene currently in existence. Oh, and she's also supposed to get pregnant from this guy along the way, because the Fulcrum wants a steady supply of strong orogenes to feed its needs.

Syenite's story was definitely the most intriguing and, I think, the strongest. Damaya's pretty much felt like a typical supernatural school story to me, most of the time, with her dealing with hazing and learning her abilities and getting into trouble. Essun's was mostly a lot of walking, though a few interesting things came out of it along the way. But the real big reveals, and the real big events, all happen within Syenite's story, which meant that when I hit an Essun or Dayama chapter, I found myself flipping ahead to see how long it would be until we got back to Syenite. There was a weird time-jump in her story at one point, though, which felt very choppy to me and did disrupt my "flow." But I think we really see this world through this story line, more than the others, and I was sad to see it end, because it's pretty obviously not going to continue in the next two books in the series.

Also, I think the book as a whole read better during the body than it did in retrospect, after the end. During the main reading, it's not outright said but is definitely apparent that Damay and Syenite's stories take place before the cataclysm that starts the book, mainly because, well, the world isn't ending. But when they all get tied together at the end, it makes them feel much more like plain old backstory than compelling plotlines on their own, and I liked them as separate plotlines; I think it would have felt much neater if they had been, and had just been tied into the Essun one.

Do I think this is Jemisin's strongest work? I much preferred The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was her first book (and was also nominated for a Hugo but lost out to a book called Blackout/All Clear, which I haven't read so I can't tell if the loss was "deserved"), but she continues to build intriguing worlds with vibrant characters who come out of very different molds than what we typically see in fantasy, and I think that's very important. I think I would put this one below The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, both of which I liked very much, but above the Kingdom of the Gods and the Dreamblood books, which I didn't like as much. Still, there are two books left to go in this series, and Jemisin is really masterful with worldbuilding, so I'm intrigued to see where these will go. It definitely seems like they're going to be more direct sequels than the other connected books she's written so far, so it'll be interesting to see how she handles an outright series more than "companion" books for the first time.

4 stars out of 5.

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