The novel “The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin was published for the first time in 2015. It’s the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy. It won the Hugo Award as best novel of the year.
Essun is a mature woman with two young children who hides her orogene nature. One day she comes home and finds out that her husband killed their son after the boy shoe his orogene abilities and left the city with their daughter. Struck with her emotions, Essun manifests her abilities.
Damaya is a little girl when she first reveals her nature as an orogene. Her parents follow the laws and turn her over to a Guardian, who is part of an order of people who can control orogenes. Damaya is brought to the Fulcrum, where she will be trained so that she blindly obeys orders and her powers will be used to manipulate earth and stone only based on the instructions she receives.
Syenite is a young orogene who is sent on a mission on behalf of the Fulcrum together with Alabaster, the most powerful of the orogenes. The two of them are ordered to have sex during the mission to have a child, with the hope that will inherit their abilities. When they arrive in the city whose harbor is partially blocked by a cliff to eliminate it, Syenite discovers that the situation is more complex than expected.
“The Fifth Season” is set on a world in which there’s a single continent called Stillness, an ironic name thinking that it’s seismically active and which periodically passes through what is called the fifth season in which that activity is catastrophic to the point of causing global devastation. After millennia of fifth seasons, the inhabitants of Stillness have learned to harness the power of the orogenes, the only ones capable of controlling seismic activity. Because of their power, orogenes are feared and hated but are indispensable for survival therefore they’re strictly trained.
Some orogenes are the protagonists of stories that initially seem separate, but at some point, the connections are revealed. These stories allow us to understand various aspects of orogenes’ life with all the difficulties due to the discrimination and exploitation they’re victims of. The Fulcrum keeps them under strict control, and that also means managing their breeding in a way that tends to lead to the birth of more powerful orogenes.
All of this is central to a very character-oriented story: if you’re looking for a novel full of action, this one is not for you, but if you’re looking for one in which the whole range of human emotions and feelings are developed in a very strong way this one is perfect for you. In some ways, “The Fifth Season” seems more like a great prologue in the Broken Earth trilogy in which the life of some protagonists is shown, but all in all the significant events are limited and the pace tends to be slow.
One of the reasons why the novel works is that the development of the protagonists is parallel to that of the environment in which they live. The world in which “The Fifth Season” is set is very different from ours, heavily influenced by recurring catastrophes that brought down entire civilizations, even very advanced ones, over the millennia. At the same time, the profound humanity, in both a positive and negative sense, existing throughout the story is familiar and understandable. The civilization existing in the season recounted in this novel has points in common with civilizations that existed throughout human history.
These developments come slowly because they’re meticulous, so this a novel that requires patience. Only after a while, you start understanding where N. K. Jemisin is going with the various stories. It should also be kept in mind that “The Fifth Season” is only the initial part of a bigger story and has no ending.
The Broken Earth trilogy is classified as science fantasy because elements such as the orogenes’ powers and non-human creatures such as stone eaters have no scientific explanation, nor are explicitly magical. Those are labels that have a very relative value, so I recommend it to anyone interested in the themes covered knowing that you have to read the entire trilogy.