The Fifth Season Is a Masterful Exploration of a Broken World

fifthThe idea for N.K. Jemisin’s new epic fantasy The Fifth Season was conceived at a NASA-funded science workshop, and it shows: this is the kind of fantasy that edges right up to the science fictional, right down in the grit of the natural world. While there are magical stone creatures, and superhumans with functionally magical abilities, the world is downright geological: the time scales, the shifting abrasions of both landscapes and their inhabitants, the sheer molten depth of the thing. There’s eons of strata to her people and places, set into a complex narrative structure that was an almost physical pleasure to read. When those last few sections fold up tight, it is simply masterful.

The world of The Fifth Season is always ending. There is a single continent, called the Stillness. This is a mordant joke, because the Stillness is harshly active: set with tremors and volcanos, eruptions that cause acid to rain from the sky, plates that shift to swamp hundreds of miles inland with tsunami. Cataclysms large enough to cause continent-wide devastation and blot the sky for years are called Seasons; a single empire more or less controls most of the continent, or at least, most of the places where people have a hope of surviving past a Season. Sanze is empire because it has systemic lore that can carry at least enough of the population through a Season to rebuild once it’s over. In the opening, a man raises up his hands and cracks the world, starting an upheaval that will span millennia.

But this isn’t the only kind of end of the world. A woman sits, on the floor of her living room, next to the body of her three-year-old son. He was kicked to death by his father, who then fled with their daughter. The woman’s world has ended, and she’s wrapped in the inert stillness of her overwhelming grief. Essun is an orogene, born with the ability to pull power from stone, to still quakes or create them. Orogenes are hated and feared, pulled from their communities when their power is recognized, and trained and used by the empire. Her son was an orogene too, killed out of fear and prejudice when his power manifested.

It is fitting that the world cracked then too, under the man’s hands, the molten gash in the earth swallowing up whole cities, whole latitudes. Also fitting: in a place called Stillness, wracked by fire and shakes, Essun is the one who saves her village, her orogeny reflexively protecting those who would turn her out, kill her. There’s a lot of brutal irony in the Stillness, a lot of paths made jagged by the shifting landscape, both emotional and physical. Essun leaves to find her daughter, heading out into the world as the Season darkens around her, but even that becomes something else: her grief intruded upon and shifted.

We also follow Syen and Damaya, two roggas (which is what orogenes are called pejoratively) as they navigate the complex injustice of their lives. Orogenes are tightly controlled, bred like oxen and yoked for the needs of empire. An empire predicated on the brutal exigencies of constant apocalypse can justify a lot of horrors. Horror is the bedrock. Jemisin keeps tugging you into it through a canny use of the second person: putting you on that floor, that road, that trembling earth. This is just the start of things to come, the first of a trilogy in this broken earth. I can’t wait to see this place shudder into being.

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