This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.
It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a triumph of the fantasy grimdark subgenre and has gained renown in the broader literary world, winning the 2016 Hugo Award and shattering readers since its publication in 2015. The novel is a deeply depressing fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world trades between three points of view (POVs). This book put me through a collection of emotions as I placed myself in some of the uncomfortable situations each of the three main characters suffers through. Mrs. Jemisin writes reflective yet straight prose presenting themes of control, parenthood, sexuality, and prejudice throughout five hundred pages. Reading the starkness of the world Mrs. Jemisin created, the quiet moments of tenseness between each of the three main characters’ arcs never end, and somehow, I kept turning the page to see if things would get better and knowing that it most likely would not.
The three main characters are Syenite, a highly motivated and intelligent pupil of the Fulcrum, Damaya, a young child who is given the protection of a Guardian because she has extraordinary powers that she must learn to control, and Essun, a middle-aged woman looking for her husband and their last surviving child.
“You’re a gift of the earth—but Father Earth hates us, never forget, and his gifts are neither free nor safe.”
For me, one of the challenges of the book, besides the bleakness of the environment and the supporting cast, is that one of the three main POVs is told from a second person POV, which is jarring when jumping from character to character, mainly when the other POVs use a different writing perspective. I pushed through this as I have with other books, and it paid off as each character arc meet in the end.
The setting and ideas formulated through the three main POVs are placed in a stark and unforgiving dystopian apocalypse wrecked by earthquakes (or other disasters). A season is a disaster or significant world event and the corresponding time between when people attempt to rebuild, knowing they must prepare for the next season. A never-ending cycle of preparation and disaster, which, when looking forward, feels now only familiar. The people who walk the world and have no power are called “stills,” and the smaller portion of the population (less than one percent) are called “orogenes”. These people can cause earthquakes, kill with frost or cold, and perform other feats. They are hated and feared by most and used as tools or weapons to control specific areas through a form of lifelong military service or enslavement. The Fulcrum attempts to use “orogens” to control territories, lessen the effects of a season, and calm the rumbling ground under the different shattered fault lines of the land. The Fulcrum a government-like entity that trains orogenes harbor shadier secrets, and upon learning them, I realized how cruel the world Mrs. Jemisin has created.
“You think you matter?” All at once, he smiles. It’s ugly, cold as the vapor curling off the ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.”
Mental and physical pain is felt through the three main characters in various circumstances. Mrs. Jemisin’s storytelling had me hating Schaffa through most of the book, yet for a few moments, it somehow changed my thoughts on Schaffa, a Guardian who broke a young girl’s hand at the start of the book at the end. I still hated him, but somehow, I nodded, if not in agreement but in understanding at the end. The last few pages linger like a ink stains on my fingers.
The Fifth Season provides complicated characters making choices in extreme circumstances at the end of the world, and the last portion of the book is the eye-opening, “holy shit” writing that secures this book’s acclaim and awards. This review is spoiler-free, but let me say yes, it deserves the treatment it gets from the professional press and others who pick it up and make it through the entire book.
“Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; Death is the fifth and master of all.”
Mrs. Jemisin doesn’t play with words; each sentence and word are set down deliberately, providing further growth for the characters and overarching story. She laces the three POVs charters separated at the start of the book, slowly twisting them until their fateful and dramatic ending and maybe everything that comes after. The narrative that drives the books is shown through the pacing. Long silences where life occurs, people prepare, and bursts of violence and destruction. Where I thought the writing shined was the agony of life between the disasters, learning how everyone barely coped with surviving and existing, which was felt on each page.
I read a paperback version of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Book 1 of the Broken Earth Trilogy printed in 2020. The book is around 130,000 words with a cover created by Lauren Panepinto, which shows a decaying wall with a faded sculpted metal and stone flourish. Its morose simplicity represents the tone found inside the pages. This book is not easy to recommend to everyone, but it was worth my time, and if you’re courageous enough, I hope it’s worth yours.