Sometimes your friends suggest stuff to you and they're actually right. You think you won't be down for it, but they're right. Like, seriously right. I didn't get it back in December 2021 when I started this novel, and honestly still didn't fully get it when I passed the halfway point at the end of August this year, but I get it now. Last December my dear friend Sho was visiting from Tokyo, and we met up at a Korean cafe for some boba (for them) and bingsu (for me). They surprised me with a box set of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy as a Christmas gift, with the disclaimer that they knew sci-fi and fantasy aren't usually my thing, but they genuinely thought I might enjoy this book series as much as they did, and hoped I would give it a try. So, to humor my friend and show gratitude for their thoughtfulness, I started reading book 1 (The Fifth Season) that same month, and then progressed through it leisurely all 2022. But something happened in chapter 13 that had me picking up speed this month. And then from chapter 17 onward I literally could not stop. I needed to know what would happen next, and next, and next.
I stayed up all night Thursday finishing The Fifth Season—altogether it's 449 pages divided into 23 chapters, plus a few interludes—rested and let the book marinate in my mind on Friday, and here I am Saturday writing this review. And I do get it now! Sho was so right! I'm writing about this novel on its own because it's taken me nine months to finish it, and its meatiness requires my undivided attention. This review will be as long as it wants to be. This review will also be overflowing with spoilers, because I'm using it to piece things together so I can dive into book 2 with my head on straight. (Although I suspect there's no way to prepare for what N.K. Jemisin has in store in that one.) In fact, this might be the most spoilerific book review I've ever written; I'm explaining the book to y'all as I explain it to myself.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
—or mere folklore, depending on if people believe it or not—and historical record of this world. In the current civilization within The Fifth Season, the Stillness is united as an empire, with the imperial capital and biggest city being Yumenes (population: seven million).
In this universe, there are people born with the power to sense and manipulate the environment around them, which is most often expressed through their ability to start, stop, and divert earthquakes. These people are called "orogenes", their power is called "orogeny", and people who don't have this power (the majority of the population) are called "stills". Because their power can be unpredictable and isn't fully understood, orogenes are treated like monsters by most stills, and regarded as dangerous weapons by the empire. To make that danger useful, the empire has established the Fulcrum, an enormous, heavily-guarded military complex within Yumenes—a city within a city, really—where orogenes live, work, and are trained from childhood to use their powers to serve the public. After completing school (or "creche"), they wear official black uniforms and acquire rings that signify their skill level as their careers progress (ten-ringers are the highest rank). Orogenes who aren't born and raised in the Fulcrum, aren't able to live in peace in other comms, and are young enough to be trained, are often located and corralled to the Fulcrum by "Guardians", CIA agent/slave catcher mash-ups who wear unsettling smiles and burgundy uniforms. (Guardians also live and work in the Fulcrum. They're the children of orogenes who don't have orogeny, but are genetically predisposed and surgically-modified to be able to counteract orogeny instead. In other words, their job is to ensure orogenes fear them, obey them, and never become too powerful. Any Guardian can exercise this authority over any orogene, but each orogene also has their own specific Guardian who's assigned to them for life.) Also in this universe, there are gigantic, man-made, upside-down, hexagonal crystal obelisks of varying colors floating around the continent. No one remembers why they exist, but they become important later.
The Fifth Season opens with a prologue where an as-yet-unnamed orogene man and his companion (a mysterious creature called a "stone eater" who isn't human but can make herself appear like one) look over Yumenes before said man, intending to break the world, creates an earthquake that destroys the capital and sets off a new Season. The chapters after that follow any one of our three main characters, who are each orogene women/girls. In the order that they're introduced:
Essun. A 42-year-old wife, mother, and schoolteacher in a comm called Tirimo, where she's been passing as a still for the past 10 years. The only people who know her secret are her friend Lerna (a doctor) and her two young children who are orogenes just like her. The day of the Yumenes quake, but before its reverberations would have hit Tirimo, Essun finds her almost-three-year-old son Uche dead at home, and her daughter Nassun (older than Uche) missing. (Presumably, at least as Essun has deduced, her husband Jija discovered that Uche was orogene and beat him to death, then fled with Nassun in tow.) While mourning over her son's body, she diverts the Yumenes quake away from Tirimo when she senses ("sesses") it coming, but this tips off everyone else in town that she's orogene, and she has to flee the comm because they're biggots (and because she needs to find her daughter). She then heads southward, in the opposite direction of Yumenes, and is gradually accompanied by a little boy named Hoa (a stone eater) and a trans woman named Tonkee, a scientist who's obsessed with studying obelisks. They eventually arrive at a comm called Castrima, which is an above-ground front for an underground geode city that runs on orogeny and welcomes orogenes. Essun doesn't find her husband or daughter there, but she is reunited with Lerna... and someone else too. Essun's are the only chapters written in 2nd rather than 3rd person.
Damaya. A little girl in a rural comm who's the only orogene in her family; her parents (especially her abusive mother) fear her and make her live outside in the family barn once her powers become more apparent. Her mother arranges to have Damaya taken away, and that's when a Guardian (Schaffa, Damaya's specifically-assigned Guardian) arrives to take Damaya to Yumenes. Damaya thrives as an advanced learner at the Fulcrum, and when she realizes she's being bullied by other kids (or "grits", as orogene children in basic training are called), her method of stopping them has extreme but conclusive consequences. She wanders around the Fulcrum during her free time. Which is fine, until she and a still girl who's posing as a grit find a secret passage, which leads to a secret pit where the floating obelisks used to be made. On top of seeing what she's not supposed to see, the Guardian who catches them becomes possessed and starts telling Damaya vague but ominous things that she's not supposed to hear, and Schaffa kills that Guardian in front of Damaya. If Damaya can't be obedient she must at the very least prove herself useful, and so Schaffa immediately makes her take and pass her first ring test to spare her from being gravely punished for the discovery she's made.
Syenite. A four-ringer in her twenties trying to climb the Fulcrum ranks and earn a cushy, quiet life, who is assigned to breed with her new mentor, a ten-ringer named Alabaster. They're dispatched to a coastal city called Allia to clear coral from the harbor there, but this mission is merely a cover for them to go way together and make a super powerful orogene baby that the Fulcrum would raise and cultivate. Someone poisons Alabaster's food, and while he's recovering Syenite removes the coral on her own. Which is fine, until she also accidentally unearths a cracked red obelisk (with a seemingly-dead stone eater inside?) that was buried in the sea. After Alabaster recovers, a Guardian shows up and attacks them both, and Syenite accidentally sets Allia on fire trying to defend herself. (She harnesses energy from the obelisk and the obelisk explodes, leaving a volcano in its wake.) Alabaster's stone eater friend (Antimony) whisks him and Syenite to a pirate island called Meov where orogenes are celebrated and appointed as comm leaders. There, Syenite and Alabaster both fall in love with the comm leader called Innon, Syenite gives birth to Alabaster's son (Corundum), and they're a happy throuple family for almost three years. Until Syenite goes back to Allia to seal the volcano, which alerts the Fulcrum and has a fleet of ships descending on Meov to seize Syenite, Alabaster, and their baby. Alabaster gets saved by Antimony again, Innon is murdered by a Guardian, and Syenite, cornered by Schaffa and refusing to return to the "slavery" of the Fulcrum, tries to kill herself and her son by wrecking Meov and its surroundings. (Think that infanticide scene in Toni Morrison's Beloved, or the real 1856 story of Margaret Garner that Beloved was based on.) Except Syenite lives, and after washing up back on the continent and wandering for two years, she settles in Tirimo and takes on a new name... Essun.
And I thought the Henry/001/Vecna reveal at the end of 'Stranger Things' season 4 (volume 1) was impressive! Truly, I'm so amazed by how things work together because like I messaged Sho, "Timing really is everything when it comes to when you consume media and how you respond to it. I watched [the Vecna reveal] in May and was blown away. Because of that (and because of clues that I picked up in Jemisin's writing), I was open to a similar thing being possible in The Fifth Season, and so while it wasn't a COMPLETE surprise, I was still blown away by how she pulled that off. Made me appreciate the ingenuity even more, even if I could sense that the reveal was coming." And whereas I shouted while watching 'Stranger Things' because the brilliance of that villain origin story was so thrilling, the Damaya/Syenite/Essun reveal in The Fifth Season stunned me into complete silence. My stomach dropped and I had to look away from the book and just sit in stillness (no pun intended), with my hand over my face. Because... my God. This woman has gone through so much. Too much. She lost three different families! She had two different sons, twelve years apart, both die at the age of two! This woman is believable as three separate characters because Damaya, Syenite, and Essun's respective chapters genuinely read like separate lifetimes. But at the same time, you can pinpoint the exact moments where our hero transitions from a love-starved child unaware of the depth of her power, who's a brilliant student and also a little too curious for her own good (Damaya); to a sarcastic and confident young woman whose sense of justice eventually eclipses her ambition to play the game of the Fulcrum (Syenite); to a jaded, grieving mother who mentally beats herself up at the slightest distress because she thinks she brings death on all around her (Essun).
I didn't look up any information about The Fifth Season before I read it—I simply trusted Sho's recommendation—and the only writing of N.K. Jemisin's that I'd read previously was her essay in Well-Read Black Girl. But knowing that the author was a Black woman, I based my reading of The Fifth Season on my own presumption that all characters were Black unless described otherwise. And that approach actually helped me understand the story more thoroughly than I could've anticipated. Canonically, orogenes can be any race, but the parallels between being orogene and being Black in America are there. "Rogga" is the slur of choice that stills hurl at orogenes (and that some orogenes used amongst each other), and how is that not an obvious reference to "nigger" or "nigga" for Black people? And let's not forget the respectability politics of the Fulcrum! Orogenes use their abilities to save lives and entire comms, yet they must demonstrate an inordinate amount of self-control to avoid punishment for being a perceived danger to the public. They are reduced to their usefulness, severely over-surveilled, not allowed to leave their dwelling without official permission much less create a different life for themselves, not allowed to do anything that might scare the stills, and are all the while expected to be polite and grateful. That don't sound like being Black American to you? The science-y part of this novel might not be my forte, but I was still picking up the messages that Jemisin was putting down! With that being said, although the book repeatedly describes being part of the Fulcrum as slavery, for the longest I couldn't internalize that because the Fulcrum wasn't giving plantation to me. It was giving specialized, extremely stringent branch of the military; it was giving bureaucratic mega-corporation; but it wasn't giving plantation. It wasn't until Syenite and Alabaster left the Fulcrum and started interrogating what they went through that the slavery parallel set in for me. And their stand-off with those Guardian ships in chapter 22 made it even clearer.
Looking at The Fifth Season as social commentary, even though the book is quite emotionally heavy, I felt refreshed by the frequently-expressed idea that the way we live now is not the only or best way to do things simply by virtue of being a long-established status quo. It wasn't always like this, and it doesn't have to be like this in the future either. Furthermore, there are places where the undesirable are not only appreciated, but respected and valued as essential. In other words, our current world shaped by colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism is not the only world we can aspire to. It's not the only possible pinnacle of human achievement. We can create spaces of our own; we can try to make this world a better one. Imagine reading a book about the world ending over and over again, and genuinely finding hope in it (and not in a cynical or depressed way either). Sounds ridiculous, right? But that's precisely what I found. And that's another reason why I believe Jemisin is a genius.
To start rounding things out, let me list a few more aspects that I adore about The Fifth Season. Lube and dildos exist in this universe! Queer people (especially queer men) exist in this universe! A trans girl (who lives long enough to be a trans woman) exists in this universe! Black matriarchs are still called "Muh Dear" in this universe! A polyamorous family exists in this universe! BDSM (is hinted at existing) in this universe! Birth control exists in this universe! And I mean, sure, a ton of people die as a result of Syenite and Alabaster's respective world-breaking, including their own son. However. Imagine being a Black child whose parents love you so fiercely that they would destroy an island to spare you from bondage, and fell an imperial capital to take vengeance against the people who dared try to capture you. Is that not the very embodiment of them declaring, "I don't play about me and mine"? I can't not be moved by that.
"His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He's tried before and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city's hubris, and one empire's fear" (6-7)."There should be a better way. There must be. Sanze can't be the first empire that's managed to survive a few Seasons. We can see the evidence of other ways of life, other people who became mighty... I realize you only have the education the Fulcrum gave you, but think, will you? Survival doesn't mean rightness. I could kill you right now, but that wouldn't make me a better person for doing so" (123-24).
"There passes a time of happiness in your life, which I will not describe to you. It is unimportant... But what is important is that you know it was not all terrible. There was peace in long stretches, between each crisis. A chance to cool and solidify before the grind resumed" (361).
"Allia, this was Allia, this was a human place, there were people here. People who didn't deserve to die becauseof mebecause they were too stupid to let sleeping obelisks lie, or because they dared to dream of a future. No one deserves to die for that" (383)."This is home until I can escape it" (388-89).