The Broken Earth: Book One: The Fifth Season
By: N.K. Jemisin
Published: August 4, 2015
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2016
This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time. (Prologue).
N.K. Jemisin is one of science fiction’s biggest authors whose popularity continues to grow. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is a MUST READ for ALL readers regardless of its genre. Jemisin, like other sci-fi authors, incorporates social issues of both the past and the present with scientific theories and scientific facts that make her work more comprehensible for her readers.
The Fifth Season captures the readers’ attention instantly by using the second person narration for the first chapter (after the Prologue) and is used throughout the novel. This style of narration pulls you into the structure of the society of a futuristic and a damaged planet Earth. The story begins with a terrible earthquake and the mother of a murdered toddler, Essun; then, the story jumps to a young girl, Damaya, being cast out by her family for demonstrating a dangerous ability; and finally, the story moves to another protagonist, Syenite, who is given an unusual task by her superiors to complete.
N.K. Jemisin gives readers her vision of a dystopian world with several science references that will force you to reread your old science notes from high school! In other words: geology, genetics, and environmental science are part of the larger subplot of this trilogy! Just like with other works of science fiction: the world, the environment, the culture, the inhabitants, and the jargon need to be mentioned and explained. And, since this is the first book in a trilogy, it is worth learning the terminology and the information in the Appendices (i.e. orogeny, the Stillness, stone eaters, rogga, Guardian, etc.) because they are part of the story and are used throughout the trilogy. And yes, you do learn what a “Fifth Season” is early in the novel.
The characters and the style are juxtaposed. Since there are three different characters—a child, a young adult, and a parent, all female—the style reflects the experiences and the events occurring to each of them. This means that what is happening to a 10 year-old is different from what a grieving mother is feeling. There are five other characters we meet within the novel, but we do not get their POVs; yet, we eventually find out how and why these main characters are relevant to the protagonists.
Additionally, we learn that all of the characters in this story are damaged and/or ostracized from their communities. All of the characters are connected to the events regarding the end of the current civilization. The decisions and the backgrounds of the major characters give insight into the culture, the history, and the injustices underlined in them; it allows understanding to the actions of the characters throughout the story. The readers learn more about each of them as the story progresses. This is essential because after you learn about the protagonists and the other characters, the events that occurred in the “Prologue” makes more sense and becomes relatable.
The narrative is in the form of stream of consciousness—or the unbroken flow of a character’s perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings within a narration—which is necessary as one reads more of the story. The thoughts of the mother who is grieving for her son, a young woman who begins to question her society for what it is and what they do, and a girl who must adapt to her new lifestyle within a short time in order to survive allows for world building and interpretation of how the world operates. These thoughts and feelings buildup and explode over the course of the novel. The use of flashbacks by all of the characters flows into the present narrative.
The style—based on the narrative—reflects the current protagonist, as per chapter, clearly. Yet, Jemisin’s style allows her readers to gain a sense of mystery because of the uncertainty of the other characters, which are mirrored by the protagonists (through the eyes of the readers)! Everything comes together towards the novel’s ending. By then, readers have a better idea of the protagonist and the main characters and what motivates them all and why. The cliffhanger will make you want to read the next book, The Obelisk Gate immediately; and then, afterwards, The Stone Sky.
The Fifth Season falls under the apocalyptic subgenre, which means that the characters are preparing for survival. A few other readers have criticized the novel for having scenes that contain the characters performing certain “acts” for survival. This criticism is interesting because other apocalyptic media—The Walking Dead graphic novel series and TV show, and The Last of Us video game—includes characters that commit brutal “acts” in order to survive their situation in that society. And, like The Fifth Season, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are critically acclaimed. Ironically, we learn of similar situations during war and genocide through witness accounts. I believe reading words still leaves a lot to one’s imagination and gives us a glimpse at a potential reality.
Another critique of the novel is the “harsh reality and treatment” of those with the ability of orogeny (power to “move” the land) also known as “roggas.” Both history and fantasy and science fiction—which reflect humanity at its best and at its worst—expresses the way “different” people are treated. Both genres illustrate various forms of slavery and xenophobia taking place: children being separated from their families, corporal punishment, breeding programs, bounty hunters, etc. Fantasy and science fiction often includes aspects of realism in order to make the story more believable. Ironically, this method of storytelling becomes a critique to how people have and continue to treat other people. Jemisin does an excellent job incorporating this reality within her science fiction saga.
I enjoyed this novel for several reasons: the complexity of the characters who are struggling with both external and internal conflicts, narrative and the plot of the story itself, the gripping and the gruesome society the author created, and the innovation of a different type of dystopia. Usually, when I’m thinking about theories on how the world could end, earthquakes and volcanoes do not come to mind. That goes to show that our way of life—not the Earth—could end and no one has an idea as to how and why.
The appeal surrounding The Fifth Season has been noteworthy and deserving. Jemisin’s novel has earned her her first Hugo Award for Best Novel; and, she has been dubbed as being “the next Octavia Butler.” As of right now, a television adaptation is in the stage of “early development.”
The Fifth Season does have a complex narrative, but the story and the characters grip the readers’ attention from the beginning. The uniqueness of the story yanks you in and refuses to slow down until the end. All sci-fi and fantasy fans should read this novel! If you want more of this story, then you can read the rest of the books in this amazing and innovative trilogy! It’s the only way you’ll find out why the Earth and its civilizations were destroyed!