It’s uncommon to read a widely acclaimed, award-winning novel and find that it absolutely lives up to the accolades, even exceeding expectations. That was definitely my experience with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2016), the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, and epic fantasy with exceptional world-building, great characters, and powerful themes. The novel introduces us to “the Stillness,” a massive continent wracked by so much seismic turbulence that its routine times — oppressive enough as they are — are periodically disrupted by massive extinction events that dramatically reshape the world. The key powers in the Stillness are the “orogenes,” who can manipulate seismic activity enough to mitigate the damaging effects of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But the orogenes are also a source of fear and loathing to the many “stills” who outnumber them. An organization known as the Fulcrum keeps the orogenes in check and leverages them to maintain societal stability — and concentrate their power. In alternating chapters, we get to know three key protagonists: Damaya, a young “rogga” with undeveloped orogenic powers; Syenite, a fourth-ring orogene working within the Fulcrum’s stultifying, unjust systems; and Essun, an unaffiliated orogene living a quiet life in a small community. Their stories are deeply intertwined, and their journeys eventually coalesce into an explosive confrontation, while also serving as a eye-opening illumination of the world’s many injustices.
The Fifth Season is, first and foremost, a beautifully written novel, with a lyrical but accessible voice that draws the reader from the first line. The world-building is first-rate, from its geography to its terminology, its magic systems to its vast and richly described “stonelore.” And the characters are well designed and perfectly situated to help the reader decode and comprehend both the vast scope of the world’s history and the deeply embedded nature of its injustices. It is a bleak story, occasionally quite harsh, but it’s also powerful and heart-felt, with an intense beauty burning along under its unforgiving surface. An outstanding book.