I was reminded this week that there are too many good books in the world. Well, too many for me to read, at least. On a family trip to London, we popped into Waterstones’ (pretty much the UK’s only remaining chain of bookstores) flagship store on Picadilly. I love going there. It’s six wonderful floors of books. On this visit, time and concentration restraints restricted our attention to only the children’s floor, but nevertheless, I found half a dozen or more books I desperately wanted to read. This despite having bookshelves stuffed full and overflowing. There just isn’t time to read everything. Which is why I’ve only just come to read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy has been on my radar for a long time, not least because each book in the series has won the Hugo Award. The books have been acclaimed just about everywhere I’ve looked. I’d even picked up the second volume, The Obelisk Gate, as part of a special offer somewhere along the line, but I just had gotten around to picking up The Fifth Season. Fortunately for me, in celebration of Jemisin’s third Hugo win, her UK publisher was offering review copies of The Fifth Season for book reviewers who were still living in those dark times where they hadn’t read a Broken Earth book.
Well now I have, and whilst I might be one of the last fantasy fans on Earth to do so, I’m here to recommend five reasons why you should too.
1. It’s Literally Groundbreaking.
Deliberate metaphor? Maybe. The world of “The Stillness” is riven by earthquakes. It’s a volatile landscape where huge seismic shifts can cause devastation at any time. Against that backdrop are a group of people, essentially wizards, who can “manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” In a world where manipulating seismic events is a matter of life and death, these “orogenes” potentially wield immense power. They hold a huge and destructive power and are both feared and revered.
This sets in place the novel’s first spoke. The orogenes are vital for the world’s safety yet are ruthlessly controlled by “Guardians,” who find orogenes at a young age and terrorize them into compliance. The orogenes are organized into a group called the Fulcrum. Wild, untamed orogenes present a huge danger to everybody around them and are often killed immediately when their power manifests, even though they are usually children when it does.
2. An Unusual Structure.
I can’t say too much about the novel’s structure because it would lessen its impact, but it’s a delicate work of art that unfolds in ways you never quite saw coming. The manner in which the narrative is constructed is bewildering at first, but it definitely rewards continued reading. The Fifth Season is never a slog, but I’d be lying if I said I never wondered where we were heading. As the plot unfurls in the final quarter of the book and the full picture emerges, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
3. Complex and Convincing World Building.
Jemisin’s world-building in The Fifth Season is deep and immersive. The very nature of a world that literally tears itself apart is far from anything I’ve read before. The author builds her world with tissues of layers that exemplifies “show don’t tell.” The way language works, societies are built, and regional politics all intertwine creates a construct that feels real and entirely plausible.
Layered on top of this are magic-wielders, the ruthless engineered Guardians, and the mysterious floating obelisks. There are peculiar demi-humans, races that subsist on stones, and grand seats of academic learning. There are secrets, closed secrets, open secrets. There is love, there is hatred, there is tyranny, and it’s all marvelous. To top that all off, segments of “The Stillness” society is massively progressive, giving the overall novel, despite its darker tones, a hopeful feel.
4. Strong Women and Fragile Men.
And a whole lot more besides. There are no caricatures in The Fifth Season. No archetypes. Jemisin took “fantasy characters 101” and threw it out of the window. Women sit at the heart of the novel and provide much of its strength. My term “fragile men” is not meant to be derogatory. For all too long, the mainstay of the fantasy novel has been a grim hero, who rolls up his sleeves and gets done what needs doing to save the day. Often they would be on the side of the good and the just, though latterly the grimdark trend has meant rougher, meaner heroes, yet (mostly) all still men who got stuff done. With Jemisin’s characters, male and female are multifaceted and they have strengths and weaknesses, both of which are used to drive the plot and narrative forward.
5. The Unknowns.
Arguably, this ties into the world-building from Reason 3, but one of the things that make The Fifth Season so good is what isn’t explained. The most obvious of these are the giant obelisks that float over the planet. What exactly are they for? As book two is called The Obelisk Gate I expect this will soon be revealed. There are all sorts things that are referenced or alluded to in the book that are not fully revealed. I love that about it. It leaves lots of scope for future storytelling, but also just adds to the immersive nature of the world. Many fantasy stories contain everything they need to get from start to finish and not much else. Jemisin has added lots of additional details without detracting from the story. The tale is not flabby; it’s detailed and compelling.
The Fifth Season is the start of a multi-award-winning fantasy series and it’s easy to see why. Groundbreaking in many ways, the book plots fully rounded characters in a fully grounded world. Its intricately constructed narrative will surprise you and leave you hanging out for more.
If you enjoyed this review, check out my other 5 Reason to Read posts, here.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book to review.